Silver Haze: a compassionate, richly realised family drama

If Sacha Polak’s new film risks cramming in too many subplots, it’s because she’s so interested in every one of the many characters that populate this beautifully shot slice-of-life study.

21 February 2023

By John Bleasdale

Esmé Creed-Miles and Vicky Knight as Florence and Franky in Silver Haze (2023)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle,” runs the quote – usually misattributed to Plato – that pops up in email signatures, motivational posters and countless memes. It’s a sentiment that runs through Sacha Polak’s remarkable new film Silver Haze, her follow up to Dirty God (2019).

Vicky Knight plays Franky, a young nurse from a rough working-class family; her mum’s an alcoholic and her sister Leah (played by Knight’s real-life sister Charlotte) is in a relationship with an abusive partner. Franky is consumed by her own demons. As a child she was badly burned in a fire in her father’s pub; she’s convinced the fire was caused by the woman her dad has since started a new family with, but there’s no evidence to prove it. It’s a trauma Franky handles by smoking weed and nurturing thoughts of revenge – that is, until Florence (Esmé Creed-Miles), a disturbed young woman who has just attempted suicide, turns up on Franky’s ward and the two find themselves drawn to each other.

Polak, who also wrote the screenplay partly based on Knight’s own experiences, captures the humour, tone and rhythms of working-class life without condescension or Dardennesque dourness. While never forsaking the grit, Tibor Dingelstad’s camerawork stays alert to moments of beauty and invests moments with a sensuous immediacy, whether it’s a rave in the park or a moment of kindness in a hospital ward, grace notes amongst the radio noise of mundane reality. No character seems like a cipher; if anything, Polak runs the risk of cramming in too many subplots in an attempt to ensure all her characters are fully fleshed out. (Leah’s conversion to Islam may be a plotline too far, though Charlotte Knight plays her role convincingly.) The lives of everyone in Silver Haze are fractured and stumbling, and if the film loses track of Franky and Flo’s relationship, it’s because it is busy taking in the world around them.

The excellent supporting cast keep the overlapping stories vivid, with veteran TV actor Angela Bruce deserving special mention as Flo’s wise but ailing grandmother. And Vicky Knight, following her breakout performance in Dirty God, once more impresses. It’s the kind of performance that often gets stamped with that backhanded adjective, ‘raw’. But it’s more than that. It’s complex and nuanced, and it gives the film its heart. At one point Franky asks a patient to rate their pain on a scale of one to ten. Polak’s film reminds us that even the person asking that question might be on the higher end of that spectrum.