Jo Brand has made a career from pairing downbeat comedic barbs with her earlier experiences in psychiatric nursing. The More You Ignore Me sees Brand adapt her own eponymous novel of 2009 to screen, with the aid debutant feature director Keith English. Though well intentioned and touching in its honesty, the film’s perturbed structure exposes inexperience behind the lens, which is compounded by its unduly upbeat soundtrack.
There‘s no reason that a film concerned with mental health should, by necessity, depress audiences from open to close but sensitivity is, of course, vital. Whilst it would be wrong to accuse The More You Ignore Me of lacking this quality, it is hard not to sense that it is a film teetering on the edge of exactly that. Particularly as an eighties pop-rock soundtrack reverberates over the psychotic outbursts of Schizophrenic mum Gina (Sheridan Smith), whilst she proceeds to repeatedly trainwreck the lives of out-of-his-depth husband Keith (a dependable Mark Addy) and conflicted daughter Alice (Ella Hunt). Gina giggles childlike through her misdemeanours and is captured often more in exhibitionist frames than compassionate.
In spite of Smith’s pedigree, and all-in performance here, it is Hunt that lies at the film’s heart and she who holds it together – particularly in scenes where her character can’t. A relative newcomer, Hunt impresses in portraying a relatable young women whom, we are invited to suspect, has inherited her mother’s instability. After a childhood spent taking Gina’s illness within her stride – ‘She was quite cross wasn’t she’ – Alice finds release on watching a 1983 episode of Top of the Pops, in which she discovers Morrissey.
Alice’s messianic obsession with the quiffed, vegetarian lead singer of The Smiths may be no more than a case of adolescence but what if there is more to this? Among Gina’s symptoms and behaviours is a tendency to form addictive and stalkerish attachments to celebrities, while it can be no coincidence that Alice increasingly styles her hair in a fashion remarkably akin to her mother’s. Note too the appearance of Alice’s grandma – a terrific cameo from Shiela Hancock – who is more than a touch off piste herself. In the film’s most heartbreaking sequence, the impact of stable feminine absence on Alice roars.
Perhaps it is the too often inability of the film to whisper that is its chief flaw; subtlety is neither a strength of English’s direction nor Brand’s script. It’s an unusual failing from the writer of BBC Four’s outstanding Getting On but nonetheless damaging. The film battles through a structure that never finds a satisfactory pace, robbing moments of insight and emotional intensity of their maximum power. In one such instance, Alice learns that her mother’s illness was triggered by post-natal depression and leaps to self-blame; her horror, however, is left hanging as the film cuts to a bottom gag. This is a film that works best when it is focussed on the experience of carers than outlandish behaviour of those diagnosed.
An odd entity, The More You Ignore Me is an almost charming, nearly funny and not quite rewarding drama. On the other hand, there is a grim eye for realty within its bittersweet journey that still works to Brand’s favour.