Silver Haze (2023, dir. Sacha Polak)

by | Mar 27, 2024

FEATURE PRESENTATION: Silver Haze (w/ guest Vicky Knight)

by Film Feeder | The Film Feeder Podcast

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 103 mins

UK Distributor: BFI

UK Release Date: 29 March 2024


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WHO’S IN SILVER HAZE?

Vicky Knight, Esmé Creed-Miles, Charlotte Knight, Archie Brigden, Angela Bruce, Alfie Deegan, Sandra Kwiek, Brandon Bendell, Carrie Bunyan, Sarah-Jane Dent, Cain Aiden, Billy Knight

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Sacha Polak (director, writer), Marleen Slot (producer), Joris Oonk and Ella van der Woude (composers), Tibor Dingelstad (cinematographer), Lot Rossmark (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A nurse (Knight) embarks on a rocky relationship with her patient (Creed-Miles)…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON SILVER HAZE?

In 2003, a devastating fire in a family-owned pub left eight-year-old Vicky Knight with burns across 33% of her body, and even more sadly claimed the lives of her two cousins and that of the brave pub regular, Ronnie Springer, who saved her and her other cousin from meeting a similar fate. Since then, Knight has taken significant steps to overcome the grievous emotional pain that goes far deeper than the scars on her skin, such as taking on the lead role in Dutch filmmaker Sacha Polak’s 2019 feature Dirty God, in which she played the survivor of an acid attack. It turned out to be a cathartic part for Knight, one that earned her plenty of acclaim across the board, including from myself when I had the chance to see the film upon its release (you can read that archived review right here).

I’m happy to say that Knight continues to expand on her natural screen talents in Silver Haze, which sees her reunite with writer-director Polak for a feature that much more closely relates to Knight’s real-life experiences. While the film itself may not be quite as powerful an overall piece as Dirty God, it is an admirable effort that takes some bold swings and more often than not manages to hit its mark.

Knight plays the film’s central character Franky, the survivor of a deadly childhood fire who carries with her a deep anger that the suspected arsonist, a woman named Jane (Sarah-Jane Dent), is not only still walking free, but has started a new family with her biological father. Through her job as a nurse, Franky soon comes across a troubled young patient named Florence (Esmé Creed-Miles), whom she begins a passionate romance with, and after being kicked out of home in East London by her volatile family, she ends up shacking with Florence’s kindly guardian Alice (Angela Bruce) and autistic brother Jack (Archie Brigden) in Southend. However, the toxic combination of Franky’s anger and Florence’s unpredictable mental health issues puts their chance at happiness together at serious risk of collapse.

You may have picked up from that plot description that Silver Haze takes heavy inspiration from several aspects of Knight’s life, from the near-identical childhood incident to her profession as a healthcare assistant to her identity as a gay woman, to where the film could genuinely be considered semi-biographical. It’s whenever the film focuses on these fictionalised aspects that the film is at its most engaging, as Polak’s fly-on-the-wall filmmaking lets numerous scenes of Franky struggling to cope with the unresolved trauma of her childhood, as well as a number of tense confrontations with homophobic instigators (including, rather sadly, members of her own family), play out with a very lived-in sensibility. Moreover, Knight delivers a very naturalistic lead turn that is self-assured and free of vanity, as the actor is unafraid to bare all, in all senses of the phrase, when it comes to giving her character a wide set of emotions that wisely refuse to ignore her much deeper flaws. Between this and Dirty God, Knight has proven herself to be a performer who can make just about any role feel authentic and unshowy, and she makes the most of it once more in this film.

From a structural standpoint, Silver Haze is less solid, but still engaging. I’ve seen this film twice now, and upon the first viewing I was honestly quite frustrated by the much looser and more improvisational approach that Polak infuses within her narrative here, whereas Dirty God had a clearer structure with both its plot and characters. At the time, I felt that it turned the film into a frustrating labyrinth of plot strands that largely went nowhere, but on the second viewing, I found there to be a much stronger flow than I had originally picked up on. Perhaps it’s down to knowing what to expect this time, but throughout this second viewing I noticed how the multiple sub-plots – among them Franky’s sister Leah (played by Vicky’s actual sibling Charlotte Knight) making a sudden conversion to Islam, an unsuccessful revenge mission against the suspected arsonist, some deeply disturbing sexual abuse by Leah’s boyfriend, and a major character grappling with a terminal illness – complimented the overall naturalistic slice-of-life vibe that Polak brings, something that the bombardment of plots blinded me to the first time. There is a touch of Mike Leigh and even Robert Altman in the way that Polak shows Knight interact with her co-stars, including formidable co-lead Esmé Creed-Miles and her various family members (some of whom are played by her actual family), and while at times the structure doesn’t always generate the appropriate emotional response, I definitely appreciated it a lot more on that second viewing.

There are plenty of other noble attributes that make Silver Haze an admirable project, one being how extremely well-shot it is. Cinematographer Tibor Dingelstad blends handheld camerawork with harsh lighting to emphasise the realistic yet dream-like world that Knight’s Franky and Creed-Miles’s Florence have found each other in, which slowly crumbles apart due to their starkly different approaches to life. One sequence, that sees the couple being taunted on a bus by lairy homophobes, is framed as this almost one-shot take that focuses not on the intolerant bullies but on the increasingly agitated faces of the protagonists, which thanks to the remarkable endurance of both actors as well as the tightly-natured focus of the filmmaking itself, is made all the more unnerving to watch. Later on, the film also takes some shocking turns with some of its major characters, who begin to show a much more dangerous and even psychotic side as they become increasingly less likeable than they were upon first introduction. It is a bold choice for any film to make at the risk of alienating the audience, but it makes the central relationships that much more interesting than if they were more conventional and straightforward.

Its ability to take some sizeable risks and still come out with a fair amount of dignity ultimately makes Silver Haze a film that, despite an occasionally uneven structure, is very respectable. But above all else, as with Dirty God, it truly is Vicky Knight who gives it a striking pulse, with the actor remaining as fiercely committed as ever to delivering an authentic turn that shows the world how she is not defined by her physical and mental scars, but instead is a performer with compassion and grace to overcome it all through her work on the screen.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Silver Haze is a highly admirable new collaboration between writer-director Sacha Polak and lead actor Vicky Knight, which isn’t quite as powerful as their previous film Dirty God, largely due to an initially uneven narrative, but Knight’s exceptionally naturalistic turn and some gorgeous filmmaking give the deeply personal project a beating pulse.

Four of of five stars

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