Bridgend deals with a raw, torn-from-the-headlines story that few filmmakers would even consider. A fictionalised account of a cluster of suicide incidents which began about nine years ago in South Wales, Bridgend is the feature debut from Danish documentary filmmaker Jeppe Rønde (Jerusalem My Love, The Swenkas).
It’s the kind of subject matter that could easily drift into crass sensationalism even from a talented director with the best of intentions, but thankfully, Rønde has managed to achieve the seeming impossible here: he’s made a film which gets into the mindset of a group of isolated teenagers without judging their actions or attempting to offer easy, comfortable answers.
Hannah Murray (Skins, Game Of Thrones) plays Sara, a young girl who’s moved from Bristol to a small former mining town in Bridgend with her father Dave (Steven Waddington), a policeman. The town’s still mourning the death of yet another teenage boy, whose body was found, like so many others, hanging in the woods a couple of miles from his home. With no notes left behind or clear reasons as to why Bridgend’s youths are ending their lives, Dave makes repeated attempts to find a link – if there even is one – behind the deaths.
Sara, meanwhile, finds herself drawn into a circle of local youngsters who’ve created their own private, hermetic community: without much else to do in the dank Welsh autumn, they get drunk in the woods, go skinny-dipping in silty rivers and dance frenziedly at the local rugby club. As Sara’s bonds with the group strengthen, she finds herself growing increasingly distant from her father – particularly when she falls obsessively in love with the local vicar’s son, Jamie (Josh O’Connor).
Hauntingly shot from beginning to end, Rønde gives Bridgend a quietly disturbing atmosphere akin to Steve McQueen’s Hunger or Shame. At first, it seems as though he’s trying to imbue his film with the frosty air of a Scandinavian thriller, before it becomes clear that Bridgend does something else: it tries to imagine what a remote town might look like from the perspective of a person on the cusp of adulthood.
Again, the story, co-written by Rønde, doesn’t attempt to foist easy answers on us, but it does offer tantalising suggestions. In a place where options appear to be few if you’re young and working class, it’s easy to see why teenagers would turn in on themselves. The heavy grey skies and rainswept hills have the quality of walls; could it be that some form of seasonal affective disorder (or SAD) is partly responsible for this string of tragedies?
Then there’s the film’s occasional allusions to the teenagers’ use of the web; sure, the internet can connect people who live on opposite sides of the planet, but chat rooms and message boards can also have an isolating effect, sealing people off into little bubbles of the like-minded. Perhaps it’s a mixture of all these things that drives otherwise ordinary youths to commit such tragic acts.
Bridgend is told almost exclusively from Sara’s point of view, and Hannah Murray is superb in what must have been a physically and psychologically grueling role. A brittle, vulnerable girl, Sara’s at first an outsider, but soon accepted into a group which seems to have a shared philosophy that is never openly discussed. For them, the outside world barely exists; it’s surely significant that there are few adults in the movie, and that two of the major ones are authority figures – one a man of the cloth, the other a law enforcer. There’s also the sad irony that the parents’ attempts to steer their offspring away from trouble – sometimes violently – merely pushes them further out of reach.
This leads to one of the final things Rønde hints at as Bridgend moves into its visually sumptuous, bleak and ambiguous conclusion: that these acts are a kind of unspoken punishment meted out by one generation on the other. As Arthur Miller once wrote, “A suicide kills two people – that’s what it’s for.”
Rønde is humane and sensitive enough to tread lightly through this grim subject matter. Nevertheless, Bridgend is a potent, profoundly difficult film that may be too much for some to take – as a result, viewers should tread carefully, too.