27 August 1999 | Lexo-2
The bare facts? Or a crude simplification?
I saw Elephant when it was first broadcast on BBC TV in 1989. There was a certain amount of hoo-ha about it, as the BBC had already put it back for a few months - films about the North of Ireland were, and are, touchy subjects. Watching it is riveting. The complete absence of story, dialogue and explanation serves to bring home the fact that, after all the talk and propaganda and fine words about freeing Ireland from the British oppressors or defending Ulster from the filthy Taigs, killing is killing - people are dying, frequently and horribly, and can there ever be a "reason" for it? I grew up in sheltered south Dublin and witnessed the Troubles at second-hand, filtered through the language of journalism; Elephant brought home to me, in the most visceral way, the relentless insanity of the situation. The film should be compulsory viewing in UK and Irish schools.
The major criticism of Elephant is that it's too simple - that the lack of context and explanation aren't enough. But the serial nature of it, muder after murder after murder, have an unforgettable power. It's not meant to be an attempt at the overall picture; it's a cry of horror against an appalling situation. I saw it once, ten years ago, and have never forgotten it.
It was directed by the late Alan Clarke, undoubtedly the best director of TV Britain has ever seen (maybe the best British director since Michael Powell). He had already given early breaks to Tim Roth (in Made in Britain) and Gary Oldman (in The Firm - not the Tom Cruise vehicle, but a brutal TV movie about soccer hooliganism). The title comes from the writer Bernard MacLaverty, who said that the Troubles were like having an elephant in your living room. That's what it was like to watch this film.