“If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” or, in other words, are we blind to the atrocities we cannot (or choose not) to see? The former question both started and ended the feature-length one-off drama Ellen that premiered on Channel 4 last night. After watching it, I was completely speechless. I’ve never seen anything like Ellen on TV before that confronts such a dark topic with poetic direction. At times it’s dreamlike, and at others, its realism is so truthful it’s haunting. The hour and a half TV film is more relevant to now than ever, with austerity so mechanically declared on the news that we almost forget that people are actually affected by it. Ellen seeks to show audiences the conditions that a lot of people still live under in modern Britain and how we never really know what happens behind closed doors.
Ellen tells the story of a 14 year old girl (Jessica Barden) living with her mother (Jaime Winstone), grandmother and frequent house-guests in a London council flat. A chance meeting with Kayla (Yasmin Monet Price), a girl of the same age living in considerably better conditions than Ellen, gives her the distraction she needs from her neglectful home. The girls make their own entertainment; disturbing train passengers, shouting at people in the street and getting drunk all set Ellen up to be a light-hearted, fun drama. That is until Ellen’s grandmother dies in the room she shared with Ellen. Seeing her death as a result of her mother’s neglect (which it probably was considered she was partying each night with various shifty-looking men from the estate), Ellen desperately tries to get in touch with Jason (Joe Dempsie), one of the only adults who seems to show her any attention in the film. When his intentions prove misguided, Ellen is too young to realise that his advances are both dangerous and illegal. After having abused the young girl and proved himself to be as bad as her other ‘guardians’, Jason leaves immediately – no longer needing Ellen. With no one else she can rely on, Ellen takes up Kayla on the offer of a holiday in Scotland. She regrets it immediately when she sees Kayla’s dad giving his daughter affection, a feeling Ellen seems never to have experienced. She runs away and when Jason comes to pick her up, he takes the girl back to the house he shares with several men of similar ages. The closing scene has the men leering towards Ellen implying their molestation of the girl as the camera zooms out onto the street and narrator Ellen asks “If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
Although it sounds incredibly bleak on paper, there are some funny moments in Ellen to counter the incredibly upsetting ones. At heart, it’s a story about growing up and navigating life at a transitional age; only it’s made worse by Ellen’s tragic circumstances. Like most teenagers, Ellen is desperate to be an adult and experience life without limits, but living in poverty forces her to grow up much faster than would be expected of any other 14 year old. Before I watched Ellen, I’d seen Jessica Barden in Giorgios Lanthimos’ The Lobster so I recognised the actor but had never seen her in a role like this before. Her ability in Ellen is so impressive, especially when you consider the fact that she’s a 24 year old woman playing a girl 10 years younger. She gives a convincing and believable performance without any of the OTT tropes or irritating mannerisms older actors often give younger characters. At times she makes you laugh, and at others cry; it was an extremely moving performance.
Jessica Barden was particularly striking in the eponymous role, but the entire cast also give memorable performances. Yasmin Monet Prince, for example, plays Kayla as equally convincing as Barden for all the same reasons. Prince is a new actor and her ability in Ellen is unbelievable so I would expect to see her in a lot more in the future. Ellen was made by Sarah Quintrell and Mahalia Belo to foster new talent. Another actor I couldn’t not mention is Joe Dempsie who plays Jason. Dempsie is simultaneously confusing and entertaining viewers in BBC One drama One of Us, but in Ellen he plays a very different role. It’s cleverly done; the viewer so desperately wants Jason to be sympathetic to Ellen since she has no other adult to rely on. At the start he’s presented as a friend, a father-figure even. So it’s all the more heart-breaking when his sleazy intentions come to the fore.
The unique way in which Mahalia Belo directs Ellen is at once beautiful and disturbing. She captures childhood innocence and naivety faultlessly with fairytale-esque motifs and colours that evoke the carelessness and freedom of the age. There’s a scene that stuck with me for these reasons: underage Ellen is allowed access to a nightclub where the beautiful colours of the dancefloor provide stark contrast with the dark depths of the corners where leery men lurk. As the men close in on her like a pack of wolves, we are left to reflect on the injustices Ellen faces as a result of her neglect. At several times in Ellen we are confronted with the plain realism of her situation; what is her life lacking that have led to these injustices? Wealth? Education? Family? It’s a question that many of us would choose to avoid asking for fear of corrupting our idealised lives.
And that extends to everything, in everyday life we feed our subconscious ignorance – all the way down to the television choices we make. Yes, you probably enjoyed Victoria, but maybe that’s because it was an hour and half of lavish costume and incandescent set design. No one wants to see the poverty and squalor that lies not far beyond our doorsteps, and that’s why Sarah Quintrell’s story was so cleverly told. Ellen is raw, sympathetic and truthful. Ellen shows us what life on an estate might be like without judgement nor comment, simply presentation. There is no parading around of the stereotypical scrawny crack-addict with slicked back hair and fag hanging out of mouth (as is the case in most of the exploitative ‘benefits documentaries’ that seem to dominate our channels), instead the viewer is treated as a fly on the wall – free to draw their own conclusions.