Thursday, April 28, 2022

I Start Counting (1969)

I Start Counting, directed by David Greene, is an unjustly overlooked 1969 British drama/thriller and we can be extremely thankful to the BFI for making so many of these intriguing 1960s British obscurities available to us.

Wynne (Jenny Agutter) is a fourteen-year-old Catholic schoolgirl. She lives with her mum, her two brothers and her granddad. Wynne is hopelessly in love with her older brother George (Bryan Marshall). George is 32 but he’s not really her brother, not biologically, because Wynne is adopted. It’s still a potentially awkward situation. Of course Wynne is hardly the first teenaged girl to develop an inappropriate crush on an older man. Most girls just grow out of things like this, and George doesn’t seem to be the least bit interested in taking advantage of the situation. In Wynne’s case though it’s a fairly serious crush.

There’s also a crime thriller plot here. There’s a serial killer operating in the neighbourhood, a serial killer who kills girls.

Wynne gets the idea that maybe George is the murderer. She doesn’t have any really strong reasons to suspect him and fourteen-year-olds do tend to have overactive imaginations.

What’s important to both the emotional and crime plot strands is that Wynne is at an awkward age. She’s beginning to have both sexual and emotional feelings for men and for this reason she is perhaps not thinking all that clearly. Nobody going through puberty, male or female, is going to be thinking clearly. And she has no experience of life.

The past is a constant disturbing presence in her life. When she was a very small girl George’s fiancée Clare was killed in an accident and Wynne was the one who discovered the body.

The old house in which they lived has been scheduled for demolition so the family has been re-housed. Wynne goes back constantly to the old house, trying to recapture the happiness they knew there (or that she imagined they knew).

Wynne and her best friend Corinne (Clare Sutcliffe) play games in which they pretend to summon Clare’s spirit. They’re really just innocent games, a way of dealing with a past trauma, but they add to the complications of Wynne’s emotions.

And of course Wynne is a Catholic so there’s some guilt for her to deal with. It has to be said though that the religious aspect is a very very minor part of the film.

Wynne convinces herself more and more of two things that may not coincide with reality - that George is a killer and that she is going to marry him. Wynne’s fixations on these ideas lead to trouble and to plot complications.

This movie is a murder mystery, a suspense film, a coming-of-age film, a movie about the difficulty of letting go of the past and a kind of fairy tale. For the most part these disparate elements are combined with surprising skill. It has to be admitted that as a whodunit it’s a washout - once the serial killer plot kicked in and the three suspects were introduced it took me thirty seconds to figure out the identity of the killer, and I was right. In fact it’s so obvious that I assume that the film-makers intended us to know the killer’s identity right from the start. What matters is that Wynne doesn’t know, and this lack of knowledge on her part determines all her subsequent actions.

As a suspense film it’s very effective. There are some nice scares, the suspense parts of the movie take place in suitably creepy locations and we really can’t be certain how it’s going to end.

One really interesting thing about this movie is that Wynne is not mad. She lives partly in the past (we get quite a few flashbacks) and partly in a world of fantasy (and we get some fantasy sequences), but not to an extent that would be unusual or pathological in a fourteen-year-old. It’s crucial to both the suspense and coming-of-age strands of the plot that Wynne is at an age when she has not yet left the world of childhood completely. She has not yet learnt that reality isn’t always the way you want it to be. She has not yet learnt to distinguish between her fantasies and the real world. She’s a perfectly normal girl and she’s going through a perfectly normal stage of growing up. It just happens that in her case this process is happening at a time when a serial killer is loose and her inability to see her fantasies as fantasies could have terrible consequences.

There’s a definite fairy tale vibe as well but it’s done very subtly. This is certainly not a comedy but it’s not unrelentingly grim. There’s plenty of humour.

The acting is excellent from all the key cast members but it’s Jenny Agutter’s movie. It’s an extraordinary performance by a sixteen-year-old actress in a very demanding rôle. She’s always entirely believable.

Another interesting thing about the film is that it’s not in any way a feminist film (there’s absolute zero politics in this movie) but it deals with the emotional life of a young woman in a remarkably sensitive and sympathetic manner. And although Corinne is a less important character she’s also treated sensitively. She has her flaws, but mostly they’re just the result of immaturity. She’s also trying to navigate her way towards adulthood. Both girls behave foolishly at times but we fully understand why they do the things that they do.

David Greene had a long and busy career as a television director. He made a lot of TV movies. His include some incredibly interesting movies such as the totally bonkers high camp 1972 Madame Sin with Bette Davis and the excellent and criminally underrated 1968 spy thriller/romance Sebastian as well as the thriller Gray Lady Down and the musical Godspell - the guy was nothing if not versatile. Writer Richard Harris had an extraordinarily distinguished career in television. You name a great British TV series and you can be confident he wrote scripts for it.

The BFI Blu-Ray is packed with extras, including an audio commentary by film historian Samm Deighan, several interviews, short films and a bonus feature film, the children’s film Danger on Dartmoor (written by Audrey Erskine Lindop who wrote the source novel for I Start Counting). The transfer is excellent. 

I Start Counting is a very ambitious and complex film and it’s absolutely enthralling. Very highly recommended.

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