Colour in 'We Need to Talk About Kevin'

Sunday 7 September 2014

We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of my favourite books I've read in last few years, and won author Lionel Shriver the 2005 Orange Prize for fiction. The novel follows Eva, a mother coming to terms with the actions of her son after he murders several classmates. It's an interesting take on the nature-versus-nurture argument, providing readers with multiple ways to interpret the cause of Kevin's 'killer nature'. Eva wonders how much of Kevin's brutality might have been pre-programmed by his DNA, or whether her reluctant approach to motherhood played a part. The novel is littered with examples of Kevin's cold and cruel behaviour, but there are moments showing a different side to him: are those moments real, or are they further manipulation? Shriver turned down a consultative role on the film, but these elements were the ones she remained concerned with portraying: the 'unreliable narrator' of Eva, the 'ambiguity over who is to blame'.

The 2011 film adaptation was directed by Lynne Ramsay, and was only her third feature film. The ever-wonderful Tilda Swinton took up the lead role of Eva, with John C Reilly taking a more serious role than his usual as Eva's desperately optimistic husband Franklin, and Ezra Miller playing the disturbed Kevin. The talent of the actors alone could have made this film great, but the visual elements of the film (topped off with a score by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead) made it fantastic. It's beautiful, touching, frightening. The most common word I see used to describe it is 'masterful', and it is.

There's an infinite amount to say about the themes of We Need to Talk About Kevin, but the film's visuality is one of the aspects most important to me personally, and one which was much commented on by critics. The Telegraph's Robbie Collin got it right when he wrote that 'sometimes a film's best moments come not in any particular shot, but in the moments between them', noting the 'visual rhymes' that are scattered through the entire film (I've compiled several examples of what I described as 'mirror' scenes). The Independent's Jonathan Romney wrote that with this film, Ramsay thinks 'not in concepts, but in images'. This is a film which is 'close to music', pushing the everyday into dream like imagery. One of the most stand-out elements of the film is its use of colour, something I became acutely aware of whilst organising my favourite shots after rewatching the film to take screencaps - suddenly, shots began to group themselves fairly neatly by colour:

It's obvious from the beginning that there's an affiliation with red. In the scenes of the tomato festival, in the flashing alarm clock on the side of the bed, in police lights shone onto Kevin's face, in the school doors which trap his victims - it's inescapable. The connotations are clear to anyone who's had to do basic colour symbolism at school: red is for anger, for danger, for blood, the future of Eva's story. It's admittedly unsubtle at times, but for the majority of the film it's something a little more nuanced. Red rarely leaves a frame of the film, remaining an indelible ink staining all areas of the story with little reminders of chaos, as impossible to remove as the paint thrown on Eva's house.

But as you can see from the images above, there's also other colours that permeate the film - as well as red, it's full of scenes saturated with yellow and blue, with dark and pale grey. When I looked at them all together, it dawned on me that the colours lingered upon in the film are also the main colours of the targets Kevin practices his archery on - something I don't think can be entirely accidental. There's also several scenes where all three colours noticeably appear alongside each other (below), particularly revolving around direct reference to both Kevin and Eva. It was absolutely fascinating to work through the film and document these visual metaphors - Ramsay's attention to detail in linking every scene to another is certainly masterful. 

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