Review - Another chance to discuss Kevin - this time in the cinema

14th October 2011 at 01:00

In Lionel Shriver's prize-winning novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin, pages are devoted to Eva Khatchadourian's resentment of her own pregnancy. It is the beginning of an ongoing conundrum: is Eva's son Kevin malevolent because she did not love him enough, or did she not love him enough because he was malevolent?

In the film of the book, meanwhile, we see Eva - played by the fabulously hollow-eyed Tilda Swinton - gazing in bafflement at other pregnant women in the changing-room. It is not quite the same.

The film simply cannot convey Eva's tortured search for her own culpability over her son, the mass murderer. And so, perfectly validly, it does not try. This is no criticism of Lynne Ramsay's film, which does what it does with power, grace and beauty. It just does something quite different.

The film of We Need To Talk About Kevin is told through multiple flashbacks. In the distant past, there is long-haired Eva, carefree and corporeal. In the near past, there is short-haired Eva, struggling with an increasingly sullen infant, still in nappies at age six.

By the time he is a teenager, Kevin (Ezra Miller) is actively sadistic. When Eva walks in on him wanking in the bathroom, he does not stop or go red. Instead, he looks her in the eye, and ups the pace. "You can't get uncomfortable enough, can you?" Eva says, later in the film.

Interspersed, there is present-day Eva, coping with life since Kevin took his crossbow to school and killed eight of his schoolmates. Here is the real power of the film: as an uncompromising portrait of living hell. There are lengthy, static shots punctuated by telling mundanity: the edge of a poster flapping in the breeze, the half-raised arm of a neighbour's tentative hello.

Ezra Miller is consistently believable as the teenager whose malevolence hides a fundamental sadness. But Tilda Swinton dominates the film, both in screen time and screen presence: she is, quite simply, magnificent.

Occasionally, the film hits a sour note: the images of splattered red - jam on bread, paint on walls - are over-laboured. And we see Eva wash red paint off her hands a few too many times. We get it: the damned spot is still there.

But, overall, it is a strikingly visceral film, its images of stasis and flow lingering in the mind long afterwards. Equally - if not more - haunting are the images we do not see: the violence hinted at, but never shown.

It is not the book, no. But the film gives us entirely new reasons to talk about Kevin all over again.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today