Wednesday 24 February 2016

Disaster Film Olympiad: Testament

If anyone has ever considered what life would be like after a nuclear war and somehow reached the conclusion that it wouldn't be shit, an hour and a half in the company of 1983's Testament should see you right. While the film foregoes many of our favourite nuclear disaster tropes: running around, screaming, urination, burns, viciously imploding buildings and enforcement of the harsh strictures of martial law; it remains peculiarly affecting, in spite of - or very probably because of - its gentle, quiet, meditative tone.

The Wetherly family are a fairly normal bunch, a married couple living with their three children in the (alas made-up) town of Hamelin, California. The father is the breadwinner, working a 90 minute drive away in San Francisco. If any of the Wetherlys have cause to be glad of what it about to happen it is surely Tom, who at least won't have to do that commute any more.

Sadly for Tom, the rest of the Wetherlys and everyone else, the commencement of hostilities does more than just interrupt the scheduled episode of Sesame Street. The actual strike is peculiarly restrained for a film of its type: no whizzbangs, no special effects and no hellzapoppin, just a sustained flash of light seen through the living room window.

Testament is a film about dealing with the consequences of that flash. The family and community dynamics to which we have been briefly introduced quickly begin to collapse and decay all around us. Central to the film is Carol Wetherly, Tom's wife and now presumably widow, trying to keep a brave face and keep her family, their standards of behaviour and senses of personal morality together.

Carol and Brad Wetherly post for the annual family portrait photograph, 1984.

Of course this is difficult enough, contending with disrupted utilities and the cessation of regular deliveries of everyday supplies, before one even factors in the unseen plague of radioactive fallout. Desperation quickly takes hold in Hamelin, but it is portrayed as doing so without frenzy; rather it comes about as a result of an insidious, steady suffocation. Of new realities and circumstances removing all of people's other options. It is a sobering look at the unavoidable patheticness of it all. Not even the local school's performance of their previously scheduled rendition of The Pied Piper of Hamelin can raise spirits, if only because the stage is quickly strewn with the teeth, toes and tears of its participants.

The Wetherly children all deal with this new way of life - something which can be shit enough without all this nonsense - in different ways. The eldest son, Brad, finds something of himself, a businesslike maturity that sees him involving himself in caring for the community as best he can. His nascent friendship with the town's elderly ham radio enthusiast is particularly pregnant with pathos.

It is sad that it took such an event for Brad to gain such wisdom and perspective, but his steely visage is neatly contrasted by his sister Mary Liz, who is paralysed with the hopelessness of the situation and regret at what she, on the cusp of womanhood, has surely lost. The scene in which she asks her poor mother what it is like to have it off with a dude is a stark reminder that such conversations are difficult enough, before the onset of widespread leukaemia, shifting norms or looting.

Mary Liz was right to be filled with existential dread: she later succumbs to radiation poisoning, the second of the Wetherly children to do so after the death of Scottie, the youngest. Both are buried in impromptu ceremonies in the front yard, with as much dignity as the exhausted, increasingly traumatised and desperate family can muster.

The whole town, in fact, is being relentlessly devastated by the constricting inevitability of it all. Survivors in varying states of mental distress begin to start thinking getting out to look for anything that has remained beyond their horizons is their only option. Even Kevin Costner, portraying a young father of a baby who dies not long after Scottie, decides that he can't hack it any more, even though he managed to get through Waterworld largely unscathed.

The Wetherlys, too, are beginning to wonder if a radical option might be their best bet. With their number swollen by Larry (a child orphaned by the initial blast) and Hiroshi, a disabled child who was a long-standing friend of the family and who they have now adopted after the demise of his father, the Wetherlys pile into the family station wagon with one eye on committing suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. Bravely, Carol decides to persevere with living on, which is particularly good news for the children, who had perhaps not had the same idea. We leave them celebrating Brad's birthday in dismally reduced circumstances, quietly determined to face down an uncertain future.

Testament is an unusual example of its genre but it is none less powerful for it; a thoughtful look at the agonising but inescapable decline of human social norms and values in extreme circumstances. Jane Alexander, who played Carol, received a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for her performance, by turns strong, sad, desperate and resolved. Testament gets 8 out of 10 disaster points.

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