An intriguing injection into the rich vein of psychological cinema, The Knife That Killed Me follows the experiences of Paul Varderman (Jack McMullen, of Waterloo Road fame) as he starts a new school in Leeds and tries to fit in as best he can. The narrative takes the form of Paul recounting his memories leading to his own demise, the film’s aesthetic bleached of most colour, focusing on the events that defined his fate.
In this manner, the film explores themes of personal narrative and identity, while also providing a distinctive visual language which mimics a train of recounted memories. The camera is very much within Paul’s head, and it’s a troubled place. In an interview after the screening (from which all directorial quotes here are drawn), writer-directors Romer and Monkman described how the film was ‘unapologetically fake’, and this applies both to Paul’s interior conception of the real world and also the artificial nature of the digital landscape. Shot entirely on green-screen using state-of-the-art visual effects technology at the University of York, The Knife That Killed Me is a decidedly Yorkshire production – in its germination and also its subject matter, which more widely focuses on knife crime in the division of gang culture in a West Yorkshire secondary school.
Using the young adult novel of the same name as source material, Monkman and Romer focus on telling this bleak story in an irrefutably unglamorous light. Not once could the directors be accused of making Paul’s path an attractive or enticing one, despite his feelings of power and self-assurance after Roth (Jamie Shelton, here providing a raw and magnetic performance of anger and underlying intelligence) supplies him with the fateful blade.
In a revealing question and answer session post-screening, the pair of directors asserted the experimental aspects of this production, which eventually had a 6-year gestation period. Making use of the new liberating technology, they found that scene transitions could be seamless, joined by complex camera movements and non-diegetic scrawls of literature, detailing character motivations and atmospheric tastes of mood. These pieces of text are insightful, and strengthen the film’s relationship to its novelistic base. While this experiment is visually enthralling, at points it is hardly cinematic. The scenes play out more like intimate theatrical vignettes, a journey through Paul’s memories where, in Romer’s own words, “everything is always in focus”. This emphasis on the viewer to find each individual scene’s key aspects is engaging, but more theatrical than cinematic. Perhaps this is no bad thing. Romer, Artistic Director of Pilot Theatre, is clearly a safe pair of hands, and succeeds in marshalling the teenage cast into producing some memorable performances.
Teenage years in The Knife that Killed Me are relentlessly bleak; a netherworld of cliques and authority figures struggling to make their advice heard. There’s a line towards the end of the narrative which mentions ‘history repeating itself’; multiple references to the War of the Roses and the paternal sub-plot surrounding Paul’s father confirm this violent repetitive cycle. Monkman describes his own adolescent experience as akin to ‘emotional myopia’, and this short-sightedness transfers to the film’s settings, which are grim and constantly offer a sense of enclosure– even when the far distance is visible its features are cartoonish, artificial, mere representation.
It has now been a few days since I saw The Knife That Killed Me, and the story has resonated with us on a deeper level than we first imagined. In mimicking memory, Romer and Monkman have produced an insidious, challenging experiment which seems to gain additional veracity when viewed in retrospect. While it may be questionably cinematic and uneven at times, it is a uniquely resonant piece which deserves to be held up as an example of Yorkshire’s brimming artistic ingenuity.