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‘I Start Counting’ (1969) with Jenny Agutter – Q&A NFT2 21/07/11

The synopsis to this film in the July NFT calendar piqued my interest on a number of different levels; that it is a thriller from the late 60’s, that it has a cast of well-loved Brit actors including two of my favourite ladies, that it is set in the ever-malleable home counties hinterland, and is a pressure cooker portrait of strained family life. I felt as if I had already seen the film, so familiar was the setting, but I could not, for the life of me, recall when. It sounded like exactly the sort of film which would have occupied a Sunday afternoon rep-style screening at my hometown fleapit back in the day.

From the opening moments, where a group of boys are skimming stones into a river, oblivious to the body of a young girl just below the waterline on the opposite bank, you know you’re in for a bumpy ride.

Our principal character, Wynne, played by the plum-gorgeous Jenny Agutter, only 16 and in her first major role, gets an early establishment scene as she awakens a little ahead of her ‘Popeye’ clock and dresses for school. It also introduces one of the film’s key symbols, that of Wynne’s tendency to count up to 11 when she feels nervous, most significant later in the film. We learn that Wynne is the adopted daughter in a comfortable, but slightly dysfunctional working class family, and that she has a sizeable crush on her older adopted brother, George, played by Bryan Marshall.Her crush is innocent enough, and unrequited, but any suggestion that she is some uncomplicated adolescent is quickly put aside, as we learn that she is deeply religious, yet with a yen for the mystical side of life, and a sentimental, almost obsessive attachment to her old family home. She takes long, lonely walks through parks, over to the derelict cottage, with her minx-like friend Corinne (Claire Sutcliffe) where she performs mock-séances, evoking the spirit of her adopted brother’s dead girlfriend.

That would normally be enough to be going on with, but we also learn that fatal attacks on young girls of the neighbourhood are becoming very frequent, with seemingly little action by the local uniform to deter them, and Wynne begins to believe that her adopted brother may be responsible for them. Her behaviour toward her brother after formulating her suspicions is all the more surprising; in that she only wishes to protect him from the world, not matter what he’s done.

The subject matter, on the surface salacious, is however handled with extraordinary sensitivity by all involved. There are so manymoments of levity in the girls’ exchanges about the inevitable subject of sex, and their precocious questions about it to the visiting priest at school, is a real gem of a scene.

Wynne’s confession of all her petty misdemeanours to her local priest is truly touching, and she reveals her forbidden love here too, to the usual sentence of Hail Marys. Her honest belief in Roman Catholic life makes her forays into the world of the spirits seem all the more surprising, shocking, even. A particularly effective scene has Wynne at the foot of the stairs of the abandoned cottage, counting to eleven, as a little girl (herself, as a child?) discovers the dead body of an older girl at the last step. It evokes sympathy and disturbs in roughly equal measure.

 

We spot the enormous red herring of the film long before this scene, but the true identity of the killer is hinted at early on, and comes as little surprise later on. I am not so mean that I would reveal any more, but I will say that anyone thinking they are getting a routine stalk & slasher, or a feast of young flesh, will walk away disappointed. The film contains elements of both, but the quality of the acting; the excellent script and the sure direction keep it from descending into the morass of low-end exploitation cinema. Instead, we have a tense, engaging picture of the unbearable trials of adolescent life, and young peoples’ ability to adapt and cope in the most trying and dangerous circumstances.

The screening was enlivened by the presence of the ageless Jenny Agutter, who recalled her early film career in great detail, explaining that her parts in her first few well-known films (The Railway Children, Walkabout) turned up in rapid succession. In response to a question about ‘Walkabout’s script, Jenny denied the long standing rumour that it was only a few pages of vague ideas, mentioning that it was fully and carefully detailed by the time filming commenced. Recalling seeing ‘I Start Counting’s script for the first time. Jenny told us how impressed she was with it from the first, inadvertently answering my own intended question to her.I instead asked about the religious / mystical themes present, and underpinning the character of Wynne, and Jenny recalled her own Roman Catholic roots as being a huge help in playing this complicated girl, particularly the confession scene.

Will & Vic Flipside have once again unearthed a long lost gem of a film, for their monthly slot at the NFT.  If you aren’t a regular already, what are you waiting for?

Scenester

Scenester lives in London and Brighton, as time allows. Enjoys music, film, television, books, design and anything else which won’t leave well alone. Old enough to know better.

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Originally posted 2011-08-15 20:36:09. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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