A mother's love lost

We Need to Talk About Kevin reveals an often taboo family issue, its director tells Stephanie Bunbury.

We Need to Talk About Kevin reveals an often taboo family issue, its director tells Stephanie Bunbury.

KEVIN starts by screaming, then fights his corner with whatever age-appropriate weapon is at hand: poo when little, paints later on and, finally - disastrously - his crossbow. Only his mother could love him, as the saying goes.

But Kevin's mother Eva doesn't love him. She never has. She tried to bounce him up and down and make funny faces, the way mothers are supposed to; once he can talk, she dutifully takes him on mother-and-son outings that confirm she doesn't even like him. Perhaps he really is a monster, as she keeps trying to tell Franklin, his disbelieving father. As it turns out, he certainly acts like one.

Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin was the must-read novel for the middle classes when it came out eight years ago. Written as a series of letters from Eva (Tilda Swinton) to her husband (John C. Reilly), it is the most unreliable of narratives; this would seem to make it unfilmable, since film must show rather than tell.

But somehow Scottish indie filmmaker Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar) managed to generate the same sense of the truth shifting in her adaptation; the narrative is shuffled so that every image calls into question whatever preceded it. No surprise, then, that the film won the top award at the London Film Festival last month.

Ramsay was attracted to the book as source material because it dared to broach one of the few subjects that remains close to unmentionable: that some mothers don't love their children. "I hadn't seen anything deal with that," she says. "I think it's a scary book to read for a mother, but it's done really well for a reason: it's touched a nerve with women. And with men, actually."

We Need to Talk About Kevin is a very American story, set in the sort of well-heeled suburb where houses have endless reception rooms and you need a car to buy milk. "It's sort of strange, kind of phoney, like veneer. The houses all look beautiful but, like a set, as if you could go behind them and push them over," Ramsay says. "I wanted to look at the blandness." They filmed in Stamford, Connecticut, which, Swinton points out gleefully, is where horror director Wes Craven lives. The original Elm Street was around the corner.

The film certainly plays up this connection; curtains flap ominously at the windows; the child Kevin (Jasper Newell) stares from beneath his brows like Damien in The Omen; the house immediately brings to mind The Amityville Horror. "People have described the story as 'the real Rosemary's Baby', something like that," Ramsay says. "It's not at all supernatural - the devil's in the mother and the son - but I do think the genre's really interesting and I wanted to use those elements as a filmmaker."

The story was also scary to shoot on a small budget, given that it covers an 18-year period, requiring several hair and costume changes, plus three Kevins. "I didn't make things easy for myself," Ramsay says.

One of her crisis moments came when Rock Duer, aged three, staged his own Kevin-style tantrum after realising he was supposed to do a scene in a nappy. "He was like, 'I'm a big boy! I don't wear them!'" Ramsay says, laughing. The oldest and most intense of the Kevins, Ezra Miller, nudged him into it. "Ezra was beautiful," Ramsay says. "He took him out and held him for half an hour and told him Father Christmas was going to come and bring him all these toys if he did the scene."

Ramsey, 42, does not have children. Swinton has twins who are 14. When they were born and, as she puts it, she "first met them", she realised it was sheer luck she felt an overwhelming interest in them.

"I remember thinking, 'Wow, I'm really into you and I'm going to find it easy to love you' - but I'm aware that it could have gone another way.

"I think that Lionel Shriver wrote the book in some kind of personal quest to discover whether or not to have children,'' Swinton says. ''She decided not to. But you know what, whether you have children or not, you have to live with the question of childbearing; you have to live with the consequences of having children or the consequences of not having them. There's no way out."

Kevin's challenges to the parents he despises are recognisable enough. He is fiendishly manipulative. All children are. "And all parents manipulate their children; all parents attempt to play their children off against their partners," Swinton says.

"It's red in tooth and claw, the whole business of working in a family. All of us know how difficult it is to be authentic within a family.

''How many of us, however evolved or sophisticated we are, find it difficult to be ourselves with our parents? Or feel they are authentic with us? It's not a rational business."

We Need to Talk About Kevin opens on Thursday.

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