“She says thank you, and that you have a nice dimple”
Ben Whishaw certainly has his ardent fans (naming no religiously-monikered fellow blogs…) but though I like him as an actor, I’ve never really had that breakthrough moment that would have pushed him onto my must-see list. Hong Khaou’s 2014 film Lilting comes pretty darn close though with its achingly beautiful musings on love and loss and the importance of a shared language in truly communicating and connecting with someone.
Whishaw’s Richard is grieving the death of his lover Kai, an affecting Andrew Leung, but has a dual problem in dealing with the woman who would have been his mother-in-law. The Cambodian-Chinese Junn is in a nearby retirement home and despite speaking six languages, can only swear like a trooper in English. Furthermore, her son never came out to her so Richard has only ever been the flatmate she did not like – something he is desperate to rectify.
This he attempts through employing Vann, a translator to help Junn communicate with her new gentleman caller and thus wind his way into her good books. Khaou expertly shows us the trials of translating, especially such personal revelations, as Naomi Christie’s Vann has to negotiate the sensibilities of the elderly Junn as well as the demands of the men and the way in which he uses – or rather doesn’t use – subtitles for the Chinese dialogue beautifully reflects their, and our, dependence on others.
There’s also gorgeous camerawork from Ula Pontikos who exquisitely translates Khaou’s mutable timeframes into gut-wrenching moments that capture so much of what it is like to lose someone you love. From the subtle fake-out of the opening scene to an agonising moment in bed, there’s a powerful sense of the grieving process at work and the reality of mourning someone so close to you, stripped bare of sentiment or mawkishness and just laid out in front of us.
This is where Whishaw comes into his own with the kind of unaffected performance that catches the breath with its vulnerability. His determination to connect with Cheng Pei-Pei’s wonderfully sardonic Junn is like a driving force keeping him going but it is the quieter moments, when tiny revelations cause him to start to crumble, that you see how sensitive an actor he really is. And as the bystander who can’t help but get increasingly involved, Christie’s Vann is a lovely countering presence full of warmth and wry attitude. A stunningly accomplished debut for writer/director Khaou.