Berlin 2023

Silver Haze review – dynamic but frustrating study of childhood trauma

Sacha Polak's semi-improvised and well-acted new film explores the destructive power of anger, but bites off more than it can chew

Writer-director Sacha Polak’s second collaboration with actress Vicky Knight, following their 2019 film Dirty God, is a dynamic but frustrating entry in the British social realism vein that tackles the impact of trauma on relationships and the search for resolution. Franky (Knight) a young nurse, is the survivor of a deliberately started fire that took place in a family friend's pub: fifteen years later, she is still searching for answers over the traumatic event that fractured her family. In the aftermath, Frankie's father left to start a new life with the woman who owned the pub, while her mother suffers with alcoholism.

She meets Florence (Esmé Creed-Miles), a similarly complicated and damaged young woman who is recovering after a recent suicide attempt. The two begin an electric, all-encompassing relationship that, after a homophobic incident with Franky’s family, leads the two to swap London for Southend-on-Sea and move in with Florence’s grandmother and brother.

The camera often takes a familiar, quasi-documentary approach, favouring medium long shots and extended takes that allows for the narrative to expand around it – for better or worse. There are moments of beauty: cinematographer Tibor Dingelstad captures the dreamlike, unreal nature of the first blush of a new relationship though a golden, orange sunset that transforms a unassuming park into a semi-magic space, where Franky and Florence kiss for the first time, light tingeing their hair and skin. This is contrasted sharply with a similarly hued scene in the opening of the film where Franky’s then boyfriend has sex with her in a tent in the family garden.

Silver Haze is based both on improvisation and Vicky Knight’s experiences of surviving a similar fire in her own childhood, and it is this grounded performance that is the film’s strongest aspect. When an elderly patient tells her he wants to get high and “hump her all night,” her deadpan, almost monotone response of “that is so inappropriate” has just enough exasperated amusement behind it to get a laugh. Franky and Florence’s relationship careens between gentle affection and fiery, destructive arguments, and Knight’s ability to balance her character’s underlying anger with moments of care and affection is enough to mute some of the film’s more melodramatic tendencies.

It is clear that Franky’s childhood has impacted her own relationships, but nothing is even really mentioned with regards to Florence’s own destructive behaviour. As a result, Creed-Miles’ performance lacks the depth afforded to Franky, as she transforms into manipulative force who taunts Franky for her scars before disappearing for much of the third act.

The improvisational quality often leaves the film floundering to gather its various strands into a cohesive whole – however, it is an incident at the mid-point involving a Molotov cocktail that feels like the most uncomfortably – and literally – thrown at random. Partially for shock and partially for the creation of a possible parallel that is only truly hinted at in the closing minutes, it marks the point at which Polak seems to lose control of the narrative.

Silver Haze is about Franky’s attempts to reconcile the unanswered questions from her childhood, navigating her sexuality, and the destructive power of anger. Unfortunately its determination to explore so many themes in a short 100-minute runtime mostly leaves a profound sense of unfulfillment.

Silver Haze was screened as part of the Berlin Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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