The Violators: author Helen Walsh on her first film

Novelist Helen Walsh discusses the films that have helped inspire her turn to directing with powerful debut The Violators.

15 June 2016

By Nikki Baughan

The Violators (2015)

The Violators was backed by the BFI Film Fund.

With her blistering debut feature The Violators, British author-turned-filmmaker Helen Walsh seamlessly, and thrillingly transposes the uncompromising tone of her novels to big screen storytelling. Themes of shameless female sexuality, intergenerational relationships, parental failure and the dark side of modern Britain – so expertly explored in her books Brass, Once upon a Time in England, Go to Sleep and The Lemon Grove – inform this tale of 16-year-old Shelley (Lauren McQueen), desperately trying to escape the brutality of life on her impoverished Cheshire housing estate, and the horrors of her childhood, by embarking on a relationship with a much older, predatory man.

Helen Walsh

Born in working-class Warrington, Walsh has intimate knowledge of this hard-bitten landscape. “Place and class are deeply embedded in my identity as a filmmaker,” she says. “Shelly’s story was such a familiar narrative for me growing up and, as an adult, working on the estates with disadvantaged teens.” This, together with her formative experiences as a self-proclaimed “sexually precocious” adolescent, has imbued The Violators with both authenticity and sensitivity. Fundamentally, and despite Shelley’s immaturity and vulnerability, this is not a tale of exploitation but rather admirable determination.

Indeed, Shelley’s strength of character both drives and anchors the film’s narrative, and is a credit both to newcomer McQueen’s nuanced performance and Walsh’s mastery of realistic storytelling. A voracious reader since childhood, Walsh credits novelists like Heather Lewis (House Rules) and Anne Holm (I Am David) for shaping her own unflinching writing style. There is one book, however, that had a bigger impact than the rest.

“I was given Last Exit to Brooklyn by a librarian when I was about 12, and that blew my world wide open,” she says. “I didn’t realise that you could fictionalise those aspects of life, create character through voice or subvert grammar. It got me writing about the world that I was interested in. Not being able to find the female characters in fiction, or film for that matter, [my writing] was a reaction. It was a rage.”

Despite Walsh’s love of books, growing up in a household where nobody read meant that she often felt “in a bubble,” unable to talk about the works that were having such a profound effect on her. That all changed, however, when a video store opened in the neighbourhood when Walsh was a young teenager; an event she describes as “reshaping the cultural landscape of the household”. Watching films with her father, she devoured fare by the likes of Spielberg, Hitchcock and Tobe Hooper. “I loved very male-dominated Hollywood cinema,” she says. “Rambo and Rocky were big first crushes.

The Son (2002)

“When I was at Liverpool university I met a very sophisticated Dutch girl, who was a massive Truffaut fan,” she continues. “So I watched The 400 Blows (1959) and The Woman Next Door (1981). And she took me to a Jean-Luc Godard lecture where we saw Breathless (1960). I was excited by what I saw, because it was a rejection of the style and structure I was used to in Hollywood films.”

It was when Picturehouse opened a cinema in Liverpool in 2002, however, that Walsh really came to appreciate the power of cinema. “The Son (2002) by the Dardenne Brothers completely changed the way I saw films,” she says. “From that moment I ceased becoming a passive cinemagoer, who is entertained in a cruder sense, to an active viewer, who is engaged with things like the mise en scène and the lighting. I came out of that film highly emotional; I was aware that I had seen something masterful. I’ve watched it over and over again and every time take something different from it, as a sensory experience but also as a technical achievement. What I love about the Dardenne Brothers is that the cinematography is so masterful, but it’s never at the expense of the story or character. The Son’s opening long take, for example, in someone else’s hands could be ostentatious or become an event. But it’s so masterful, so subtle and respectful of the characters.”

The Selfish Giant (2013)

As someone dedicated to creating strong, flawed and deeply fascinating women throughout her work, Walsh also finds herself both inspired by and reacting against other depictions of on-screen womanhood. “As a young woman, Fatih Akin’s Head-On (2004) and The Edge of Heaven (2007) were incredibly inspiring films,” she says. “The only film I had seen before that where I had witnessed females inhabiting what are traditionally male roles was Baise-moi (2000). Great film but incredibly disappointing, because the women are apprehended at the end. Fatih Akin presented flawed women who were not punished for the choices that they make.

“Also, the films of Lukas Moodysson,” Walsh continues. “I think [human trafficking drama] Lilya 4-Ever (2002) is the second film that had a really big impact on me. I have only seen the film once as I was so traumatised afterwards, but there is nothing gratuitous. It’s so beautifully done, how slowly all the love is sucked out of the world. Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant (2013) is another inspirational film, and Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood (2014), which is just an incredible sensual and sensory experience. I love the ambiguity of the ending, which is so brave and brilliant.”

While Walsh may find inspiration in the works of others, she’s absolutely forging her own path in terms of the unapologetic way in which she presents her female protagonists; The Violators’ Shelly being one of her most potent. “The difficulty for me was investing a child with a certain degree of self-determination in what is an abusive relationship,” says Walsh. “Although she is a child she is very much an adult, she is a matriarch of her household. In a novel it’s not as dangerous because you are in control. But as a film you’re opening up to interpretation, we’re inviting the audience to sexualise her. Part of the reason we objectify her, and [her lover] Mikey does, is because she’s beautiful, and I’m not going to shy away from that. Cinema is a sensual experience and I don’t think we should be embarrassed about it as women, or think that it’s in some way anti-feminist. As a feminist, I’ve always stayed well clear of the victim narrative.”

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