Orlando von Einsiedel has always been comfortable in dangerous situations. His Oscar-winning documentary “The White Helmets” took him into the heart of the Syrian Civil War, while his widely acclaimed “Virunga” forced him to dodge bullets in eastern Congo as he watched a small team of park rangers protect the last surviving mountain gorillas from poachers and armed militias. In that light, it’s rather jarring to see the British filmmaker so frightened in the opening moments of “Evelyn,” which is essentially a documentary about a stroll he took around the British countryside with his siblings and their parents. A few minutes later, as Orlando stares into the camera and explains the situation, it’s all too easy to appreciate the reason for his terror.
13 years ago, Orlando’s brother Evelyn committed suicide. He was barely 20 years old. His death wasn’t entirely unexpected — Evelyn was schizophrenic, and spent the last stretch of his life in the grip of his condition — but the incident still tore Orlando’s family apart. His parents’ marriage didn’t survive the shock, and his siblings followed his retreat into silence. That silence inevitably deepened over time, a hole in the heart that was compounded by the twin stigmas of suicide and mental illness. After a while, Evelyn’s loss became the unspoken truth hiding in the seams of every conversation, like a terrible secret that each of his loved ones carried with them in the linings of their coats.
And then, one day, Orlando decided that it was time to rip out the stitchings. He had an idea: He and his family (along with two of Evelyn’s closest mates) would spend a month or two strolling around the picturesque trails that his brother loved to walk, and during that time they would — for the first time — talk about the brother, son, and friend they had never properly grieved. And they would do it all on camera. The result is an absorbing and arrestingly raw portrait of the hurt that people absorb into their hearts, and how that degree of repression can snuff out the memories we hold most dear. Always specific and intimate, but never dull or morbid, “Evelyn” is more than just an epic piece of group therapy, it’s also a piercing example of how grief feeds off the darkness and starves in the daylight.
For Orlando, who can’t even bring himself to speak Evelyn’s name when the film begins, this is the most horrifyingly confrontational plan he could imagine; it borders on masochism, and also carries the obvious potential for collective torture. At the same time, it affords him a chance to put some distance between himself and his trauma, and to observe his own pain from the same remove that had allowed him to document similarly difficult things in the past. That’s not quite how things work out, but it seems as though Orlando would never subject himself to such an extraordinary measure without some kind of failsafe.
His family is a watchable bunch, and all seem amenable to the process; you get the sense that even the most reluctant of Orlando’s relatives understood the need for something like this. They spend most of the movie trudging straightforward toward the camera, which glides backwards with a degree of grace and clarity that’s usually reserved for narrative features like “Roma” or “The Turin Horse.” It was smart for von Einsiedel to throw some real money into a project that could have been shot like a home video, as the superhuman poise of the tracking shots and the grandeur of the background vistas help to articulate the unreality of this adventure, and why the walk puts Orlando’s family in such a radically different headspace.
The shooting style also creates an accidental choreography of grieving, as the subjects are free to move within the frame. Orlando’s sister Gwennie is the first to break down, and her crying spell is heightened by a visceral sense of disorder as she breaks formation and stops walking. You can practically see this family coming together and pulling apart. The body language is almost as expressive as the constant chatting, which runs down all the rabbit holes you might expect (a friend’s regret at not accepting Evelyn’s last phone call, a father’s inflated memory of his son’s talents, tragicomic recollections of the deceased’s explosive farts). And yet it’s the basic things that people don’t remember that are the most tragic (e.g. if Evelyn was taller than Orlando), and hint at just how close the von Einsiedels have come to losing Evelyn completely.
Like much of the movie, these moments are sharp enough to seem as though they might have been scripted, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a handful of actors this good, let alone all in the same family. And while it might seem convenient that so many of the strangers Orlando encounters along the way are ready to share their own stories of suicide, that’s less indicative of any kind of artifice than it is the fact that suicide is the leading killer of men under 45 in the U.K.
For all of its bucolic pleasures, “Evelyn” is like looking through the eye of a merciless storm, with Orlando’s focus pointed outwards toward the untold millions of people who are struggling to endure this same predicament. Crossing that divide between the specific and the universal is the only place where the film really falters; “Evelyn” makes you feel like part of the family, but in doing so frustratingly prevents you from getting too close. The overdue catharsis that Orlando is able to engineer for his siblings isn’t available to us, even though we can see it taking shape on the other side of the screen. It’s right there, dying to get out. The same could be said about Evelyn. To quote a poem that Orlando reads toward the end, the dead are “not gone, but merely within you.” This urgent and beautiful documentary urges us to let them out.
“Evelyn” screened at DOC NYC 2018. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.