Reviews Short Narrative

Ruby Baby (2020) – 4 stars

Director: Lee McQueen

Writer: MH von Loewenstern

Cast: Hervine de Boodt, Lee McQueen, Bradley Bissett

Running time:  24mins

One of the few positive side-effects of the pandemic is that restrictions on travel in the UK have meant less need to endure the sheer nastiness and suspicion directed at ‘the other,’ which seems to pervade much of rural and small-town England. Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, Reece Sheersmith and Jeremy Dyson famously used the theme to create a delirious, grotesque parallel universe in The League of Gentlemen. Lee McQueen explores the same territory, but in a somewhat more sober manner with his film Ruby Baby.

Intertwining an account of the weirdness of provincial life, with an exploration of the effects on an adolescent boy of the physical violence and psychological abuse perpetrated by an alcoholic Father, as the story unfolds, McQueen also attempts to add to the mix a tale of Love Lost and, possibly, Regained. This is a tall order in a film that comes in at just under 24 minutes.

The narrative is split between the present and flashbacks to the adolescence of the boy, Adam (Bradley Bissett) and a middle-aged woman, Catherine (Hervine de Boodt), who takes a train out of London to the provinces. Catherine is dressed to evoke her younger self. When she arrives at her destination station, two female representatives of the underclass shout across the platform: “who the fuck do you think you are – a film star?” Followed by the dread demotic phrase of doom: “see you later.” Welcome to Wherever, England.

Catherine takes a cab to a rural hamlet to keep an appointment in a café. The person she is meant to meet phones to cancel – Catherine is aghast to find the next train back to ‘town’ is hours away. Catherine takes out some letters that we have seen her browsing through on the train and starts to read one. The film flashbacks to Adam secretly writing in his bedroom and, yes, the writing is the same: we have jumped through time and Catherine in the present has Adam’s past secrets in her hands. Cleverly done.

As the afternoon wears on, the relationship between the café worker (Lee McQueen) and Catherine develops and the narrative gives us a whole succession of signposts that the worker is in fact: Adam, now middle-aged. Because De Boodt and McQueen put in such nuanced well-judged performances, and as each narrative development is interspersed with a series of alarming flashbacks to the horrors of child abuse, this works surprisingly well. It is also helpful that the atmosphere in the café is fantastical: spiders crawl over the crumbled cakes on display, there are no customers, the worker moves around on a wheeled chair and has to laboriously write down Catherine’s order for a single cup of tea, while the wallpaper is not so much from another decade, but another planet.

The flashback sequences are impressively well filmed and edited. They are used to illustrate Adam’s experience of adolescence: beatings from a drunken Father whilst coming to terms with the onset of puberty. We learn that Adam’s Father is a pig farmer, and Adam has to feed the pigs before going to school. We see Adam taking refuge in writing letters to an imaginary friend, the titular ‘Ruby,’ before we are introduced to an adolescent girl whom Adam is drawn to both sexually and emotionally. The conclusion that the girl and the grown-up Catherine are one and the same is made easy for the viewer to draw – they both have the same non-English accent, a synecdoche for freedom. The question remains for us – who is Ruby? Meanwhile, a swirling horror is established, blurring the line as to what is reality and what is Adam’s imagination: knives and pigs featuring prominently as the relationship with his Father comes to a head.

Two scenes stand out which both vividly portray the agonies of male adolescence. Adam is caught masturbating, as he gazes down through a hole which he has made in his bedroom floorboards (his secret place where he stashes the Ruby letters) while Catherine is in the kitchen below. This is a brave and well-judged piece of cinema. Even better is the scene where a carnivalesque group of young debauchees in a motor car slow down to mock Adam on his way to school. The male driver resembles the love child of Malcolm McDowell and Pete Doherty. A woman with sumptuous decolletage asks Adam to “take a walk on the wild side” as Adam’s attention is drawn to the cornucopia of her breasts. As they drive off, the male opines that Adam “wouldn’t know what to do with it.” Every young male virgin’s worst fears neatly encapsulated in 30 seconds. The director is aided by an impressive performance by Bradley Bissett as the young Adam – who does a good line both verbally and non-verbally in anger, repression, and confusion.

Where Ruby Baby works well, as in the above two scenes, is when social realism is contrasted with the fantastical. However, in the flashbacks, too often the film’s production values undermine what I assume is attempted social realism. On a rough calculation, the scenes are, given Adam and Catherine’s presentation as middle aged in the ‘now’, set in the late 1990s. Would an adolescent boy be going to, presumably, a state school in the 90s wearing short trousers, a Lord Fauntleroy blazer and carrying a leather satchel? Would he be reading Lord of the Flies at his age and at this time (although at least it was not Catcher in the Rye)?

The class aspects are also muddled – is the Father the boss or the sole worker on his farm? The farm appears to be a large and efficient livestock plant – would one bucket of pellets suffice to feed the pigs and would a young boy be charged with that crucial operation? In the domestic scenes, would the son of a drunk male single parent be wearing freshly pressed pyjamas? I suppose one could argue that as the overall intent of the work is allegorical the production glitches are unimportant but that would be having one’s cake and eating it – social reality as a counterpoint to the fantastical but without putting in the hard yards to achieve it.

Overall, the production is successful – especially thanks to McQueen being aided by excellent cinematography led by Owain Wilshaw – the contrast between the rural idyll outside and the nightmare of the domestic interior is caught well. Dudley Ross put together a first-class soundtrack with a great line in foreboding and in resolution, though for the latter I am, admittedly, a fool for a plangent cello vibe. A memorable ensemble performance from a group of promising actors. However, the film suffers from trying to accomplish too much in too short a time – the ambition of the project did not, for me, sit easily into the time frame available.

Illustrating this, one final, baffling aspect of the film was the use of the shoe motif. While some foot-centric shots work extremely well, particularly Catherine’s impressive stilettos, possibly used as presentiment of Adam’s knife fantasies and the Father’s work boots on the threshold, ready to administer another beating, others flop. Again, Adam’s clothing does not seem like it fits with the era or his age, though, with his Hunter brand wellington boots sticking out a little, as he performatively limps. In this context, it was hard to work out whether the stream of footwear shots served as a metaphor for something wider, or merely as another plot device crammed into a slightly over-stuffed production to enable us to link adolescent Adam with middle-aged Adam. Either way, it might have been better to scale back on this one aspect to streamline things a little.

As it is, McQueen seems to have left aspects of the plot in mid-air, undermining the continuity of the narrative – there is no time to develop the character and motivation of the Father, a female figure (possibly the Father’s partner and putative presser of Adam’s pyjamas) is introduced for no apparent purpose. It is not until the final credits that we see that the role is titled ‘Catherine’s Mum’ which opens up a whole layer of meaning to some domestic relationships which were unknowable to the viewer in real time. There is the possibility that McQueen used the device of the path not taken to heighten the enigma that surrounds the Ruby letters, and the disjoint between past and present. For instance, we are given no clue as to how the tough but vulnerable Adam portrayed by Bissett has turned into McQueen’s adorable but shambling World’s Worst Café Worker. But, for this viewer, it seemed jumpy and not properly planned out.

Despite these reservations, Ruby Baby worked well enough for even this flint hearted reviewer to be moved, as the Brief Encounter taxi door clunked shut leaving the viewer in meditation on what has been, and what the future might be. I would be eager to see what McQueen and the team could achieve in a feature-length feature film format – with more space to flesh out the plethora of ideas they did not have the room for here.

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