Content Warning: This review discusses the topic of suicide.
Grief isn’t easy. Death takes us all, but it is never normal. We are never truly prepared to face tragedy, to take a look at ourselves and in each other, to share the pain. That ominous shadow never truly goes away, and the longing, yearning and regret can and will be with us for an entire lifetime. Existence just becomes heavier from the moment you hear the news, and onto your final breath, when you turn to dust and join your most beloved in the grand cosmic embrace. Orlando von Einsiedel is one of the most confrontational documentarians in the World. The British filmaker, known for films like Virunga (2014) and the Academy Award-winning documentary short The White Helmets (2016), has made a career out of exploring the raw, unfiltered brutality of war, filming fearlessly in zones of conflict, straight from the line of fire. But it is this new film, Evelyn, in which he finally addresses the most important, most difficult and definitive event in his life. The hardest topic of all: losing the ones we love.
The titular character in Evelyn is Orlando’s younger brother, who tragically took his own life a little more than a decade earlier. In his late adolescence, he is diagnosed with schizophrenia, which helps explain the mysterious and unfortunate series of events that led him to the fateful decision. The director, along with his siblings Robin and Gwennie, his mother Harriet, and later, his father Andreas, decides to take a long journey from their home in Scotland to the Scottish highlands, the plains of Cumbria, a couple of Northern Scottish islands, and finally onto the South of England, near london; places that they all once visited with their dear “E”, with the purpose of celebrating his life, sharing his memory, but most importantly, to finally communicate their deepest feeling about his passing, something they have all been avoiding for almost thirteen years.
The trip itself feels like a spiritual healing retirement from the first moment, and the breath-taking beauty of the British landscapes is only enhanced by Franklin Dow’s elegant, sober cinematography. These places are made for introspection, and such open, monumental terrain allows the family, having nothing other than each other, to vent, to cope. To slowly release the sorrow, the tears, the soul-crushing regret. They walk long hours, climb hills, place their tent on the side of trees. They walk. They walk together. Silence becomes as relevant as words as they wander. The occasional laughter breaks the funeral dirge at times, like cracks in the sky where the light sneaks in. In true Einsiedel fashion, the camerawork establishes a well-defined sense of distance from the family. Always respectful, always there, in the line of fire, but never too close; never an invader, always a respectful guest. When Gwennie breaks down in tears, she and Robin stop their pace for a little while as the cinema eye keeps moving further, all ears on the details regardless. When they cover a particularly complicated subject or disclose a painful moment of the past, Dow’s drone hovers over them, respectfully withdrawn, yet omniscient.
The film immediately gets dark at the very start of its second act; the siblings join Andreas, their father, in England. He and Harriet divorced when they were children — Evelyn is part of a broken home. The tension, the callous interactions, the venomous words begin to show, especially between Gwennie and her dad. You can easily hear her resentment, particularly on Andreas’ brief romantization of his lost boy’s German skills. She calls him out on this, and also on his sudden bursts of disconfort and annoyance over meaningless things, and he admits to it all, ultimately admitting to his responsibility for the divorce itself. But they keep walking, talking, smiling, weeping. Andreas breaks down, disclosing a terrifying chapter of his sons last days in Germany, their paternal homeland. The family stops, embraces, and keeps moving.
Evelyn centers on the Einsiedel family and their shared tragedy, beginning with Harriet’s quiet devastation and on to the filmaker himself, but really, it is about every one of us. Along the journey, Orlando and the family find the courage to share their loved one’s story to some people they find in their path; first, a street vendor, which shares his mother’s suicide, after a long battle with depression; then, they meet a couple of fellow wanderers that lost their father that very day, at the age of 92, and just immerse themselves in the countryside to grieve; and finally, a mad called Simon, a veteran who lost three close friends to suicide after their service. All hit by death, all dealing with loss, all living with it. All human. That connection, that company, that common history, is the film’s heart. Suicide is scary because we have all been touched by it. It’s scary because it’s been in everyone’s minds.
Jack and Leon, two of Evelyn’s closest friends, join the family by the final act; a crucial element in our exploration of E’s character. They know those things, those dark corners that one never really shares with the family, that strategically constructed frontier. And then, the film finally turns towards Orlando. He’s a clever trickster of a filmaker, able to convey the deepest emotions visually, yet, as most of his camera work, always in safe — perhaps too safe — emotional distance. It’s here where we begin to question von Einsiedel’s entire ouevre. He has risked is life, diving deep in places where few documentarians in their right mind would go, in order to tell the stories of other people, yet he’s remained uncomfortably silent all along this film. Leon decides to confront Orlando, calling him out on the extreme privilege that his line of work provides. His documentaries are vibrant, vital and necessary, but he has being doing his most personal — so far, only personal — movie a great disservice so far by remaining quiet. Orlando finally breaks, saying he has never really known how to share such a painful, intimate pain; how he fears appearing weak in front of his siblings, how he has to “man up”, puff his chest and move on. This outdated form of masculinity that, unfortunately, is the reality of millions of men around the planet. Leon later confesses about a missed phone call that, he thinks, if answered, could have saved his life. The unavoidable” what if”, the real enemy.
Near the end, the siblings admit that the pain never really goes away, that this journey might not be the liberating experience they were initially hoping for, but agree that it’s a necessary start. A unifying start. The start of an eternal, continuous conversation. This can and will be with the Einsidels for an entire lifetime. Evelyn is an invitation to talk, no matter how hard, to face the shadow. Denial is poison and it can destroy us even more than loss.
In the film’s last scene, Orlando proceeds to read E’s suicide note, something he teased about in the opening seconds. It’s here when the film frontally speaks to us, and here is where I need to speak to you: Look, the film reveals that Evelyn took his own life on September 2, 2004. That day was my fifteenth birthday. That day I also tried to kill myself. I don’t need to tell you the reason why Evelyn chose to commit suicide, we’re not to judge him, but I can reflect on why I did; looking back, it was something shameful, difficult, painful, yes, but avoidable. It was, at worst, temporary. A bump in the road. I’m on the autism spectrum, diagnosed when I was 8, and fighting a constant battle against depression since I was 10. I became untrue to myself, I harmed people, I became a nightmare to be around, an awful, disloyal friend, a manipulative partner, and an absent son. I’m well aware of the monster I was, as I can recognize Harriet’s words at the beginning of the film, when she refers to the monster Evelyn became. I knew what I had been, hated myself for it since day one, but kept on going. That day I locked myself in a room and went for it. I failed. That was not to be last time. And you know, I really grieve for the Einsidels, but specially for E. In the end, I feel like a know that kid, that I knew a kid like that. In many ways I was that kid — smiling, hanging out with the boys, being a cool guy. We all know that guy, right? I grieve for what he went through, but especially, I grieve for what he’s missing. He didn’t get to see the source of light he’s really is. How his life is being celebrated, honored, how much he is to his friends and family. And now to the world. And so are you. Trust me when I say this: You got this. No matter how awful, how hard, how dark this very moment is to you and everything around you, you can get through this. We always get through it. Just stay with us until you figure it out. You always figure it out. There are people that are here for you. I am here for you. You’re cool, You’re loved. You complete humanity.
If you or someone you care about is going through something like this, you can find a lot of information here.
And here’s the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you need someone to talk to, please call 1-800-273-8255.
Or if you need it, you can talk to me. I’m a friend. I’ve been through this.