Now a stand-up comic, Jo Brand previously spent over ten years working as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital. As she puts it, it was a profession that demanded a collective sense of humour from patient and carer alike. It is not about laughing at someone, but there is so much importance that rests on healthy wellbeing that relies on sharing a laugh with someone. In 2009, Brand combined her nursing experiences with her wit to pen an acclaimed bestselling novel - and now after much persuasion, 'The More You Ignore Me' has been adapted for the big screen.
'The More You Ignore Me' starts by introducing audiences to Gina (Sheridan Smith, 'The Huntsman: Winter's War'), who is found to have an unhealthy obsession with the local TV weatherman, at her daughter Alice's (Ella Hunt, 'Anna and the Apocalypse') expense. After Gina's husband Keith (Mark Addy, 'The Full Monty') rallies a few community members to help, including Dr Marie (Sally Phillips, 'Bridget Jones's Diary') and newsagent Sandra (Brand), Gina is admitted to the psychiatric hospital - and family life for the Wilsons will never quite be the same again.
It is unclear how long Gina has been living with her mental illness, but unfortunately, it's long enough that her daughter Alice has had to raise herself. She is well-prepared for such events, seemingly mature enough to sternly and disappointedly tell her mum to "come down this instant" when she finds her on the roof. It's a funny yet uncomfortable snapshot into what 'The More You Ignore Me' offers as a small British Indie film; a quirky comedy with some truly dark undertones. Mental health is absolutely a serious issue, and this film has no intention of belittling its impact with laughs, but first-time feature director Keith English wants to find the humour in a way that allows all the characters to find happiness - in any way they can.
After the events with the weatherman and the roof, the film jumps into the mid-80s, and life for Alice and Keith is not exactly what you would call "normal". Keith acts as Gina's full-time nurse, and in true Mark Addy style, he brings genuine care and smiles to every day. This is certainly not the way he thought his marriage was going to pan out, but he loves his wife and will be there for her no matter what - even when she starts throwing toast around the house. For Alice, she is a teenager trying to juggle school, boys, a heavily medicated mother, and a waning sense of identity. That is, of course, until she discovers Morrissey and The Smiths, whose Brit Rock sounds and poetic lyrics have an immediate and life-changing effect on Alice. Think Springsteen's lyrics in 'Blinded By The Light', only substantially more subtle.
Fans of Morrissey will notice and appreciate all the Easter eggs and references woven throughout the film, although I must admit they mostly flew past me - the title of the film included. Nonetheless, the part they play in shaping Alice and her happiness is clear - and what's more, the role Morrissey plays in the plot means that knowing his discography is no prerequisite to enjoy the ride, although those who do will probably appreciate it more.
'The More You Ignore Me' isn't quite the film it's trying to be. Brand is a wonderful writer and a very funny comic, and while this film has piqued my interest in reading the novel, I feel that's where this tale is best suited. My main issue with this feature is that it seems to lose its way a little bit, where even the favourable run time could have done with some trimming. The third act sees a mini-road trip and a chase, but it really feels clumsy and unwarranted. This film works best when focusing on the characters, so it certainly never needed to leave Blackpool, nor introduce more hurdles for the family. Likewise, when it comes to the characters, you get the feeling that Brand isn't as confident with screenwriting, often losing focus on whose story she's trying to tell. When there isn't a singular voice behind the drama, it can result in missing the required sympathetic punches. Too often, 'The More You Ignore Me' confuses alternate points of view on the same subject with different stories around the subject.
Everyone wants to find happiness, and this film aims to show that not only does happiness come in many different forms, but that sometimes the greatest joys can stem from the greatest challenges.
Hunt plays the daughter really well, and Brand's script gives her plenty to work with, especially when the frustration and angst of her mother's situation weighs down on her. I will watch her career grow with great interest because she has a great command of the screen, and I look forward to seeing what she does next. She's not alone in the film's great performances, with Addy providing wonderful heart and charm, and Phillips adding great support as a mostly unprofessional yet sweet doctor. Smith too is excellent as the mum, given the very difficult task of finding slapstick comedy within the confines of an illness. That being said, this film would have been better suited by focusing on Alice, cutting all the external noise which proves not so much distracting as uneven or misjudged.
There are certainly moments of utter devastation, and the film generally balances the contrasting emotions well - except for when it doesn't. It should never feel uncomfortable to have a laugh, but sometimes I really felt like I didn't want to express that out loud, and would much have preferred to let the emotional beats breathe. Everyone wants to find happiness, and 'The More You Ignore Me' aims to show that not only does happiness come in many different forms, but that sometimes the greatest joys can stem from the greatest challenges. There are oddities in how this film showcases mending a family and building a bridge to happiness, but some of that quirkiness finds its way into the viewer's heart. People and family fit together in all sorts of strange ways, and the warmth that you feel along that journey is where the heart of this film is unearthed.
'The More You Ignore Me' is the story of survival, but it's the joys within that where one can stumble upon their recipe for happiness. It is not the same for everyone, and people will ultimately search for it in any way they can, but at the end of the day, it's up to us to find the humour within the darkest times. There are many flaws in this film, and once it loses it's footing it struggles to get the momentum back - but if ever there was a film's message so deeply needed in 2020, it might be this one.
Thoughtful when it wants to be, heartfelt when it needs to be, and funny when it can be, 'The More You Ignore Me' is sure to leave a smile on your face, and maybe even a tear in your eye.