Early in 2013, a feature film slipped quietly into cinemas; a film that had been recorded in short intervals over a five-year period, and which featured four young real-life siblings cast as their own fictional equivalents. The film was Everyday, by English director Michael Winterbottom, and it attracted only the merest sliver of the publicity and praise which more recently attended Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014), a similar experiment in protracted, quasi-vérité filmmaking.
In Everyday, Shaun, Robert, Katrina and Stephanie Kirk play four children of their own ages and names, growing up in rural Norfolk. Their mother Karen (Shirley Henderson) takes the children on frequent trips to London, where their father Ian (John Simm) is serving a prison sentence for drug smuggling. Karen works a series of menial jobs (at the pub, at the hardware store) and the children attend a local Catholic school. The years come and go, marked by Christmas celebrations and Ian’s occasional day release visits home. Though the film’s style – largely unscripted, and shot on hand-held camera – is realistic, Everyday is not quite a social realist film in the British tradition of Ken Loach or his many descendants. This family are living their lives, no more and no less; they are not made to stand in as a typical (or stereotypical) case for any wider social criticism.
Winterbottom is a prolific, uneven filmmaker: the former quality almost guarantees the latter. He has directed and released twenty-four feature films in 20 years, a remarkable work rate by any standard, and these films have ranged broadly across cinematic genres and styles. He has done literary adaption (no less than three versions of Thomas Hardy novels, beginning in 1996 with Jude, starring a young Kate Winslet); dystopian science fiction (2003’s Code 46, with Samantha Morton); harrowing docu-drama (The Road to Guantanamo, in 2006, which examined the case of three British Muslim men imprisoned during the ‘War on Terror’), and very loose biopic (his best-known film, 2002’s 24 Hour Party People, starred Steve Coogan as Manchester music impresario Tony Wilson).
Winterbottom’s weakest films have also been his most literal minded enquiries into the ethics of cinema: 9 Songs (2004), which featured unsimulated sexual intercourse, and The Killer Inside Me (2010), a graphically violent pulp-fiction adaptation. At first glance, Everyday may seem to complete a trilogy – sex, violence, time – but the results are looser and more impressionistic than the film’s conceit might imply. What does it mean to film the same performers over the course of years, to have them age in front of the camera? Boyhood was motivated by the same question, but I think Everyday is by far the better film. Everyday pays careful attention to boredom, and at moments it manages to capture a sense of time that is both elusive and profound. Boyhood, on the other hand, is a film that tries very hard to be profound, and merely succeeds in being boring.
Boredom is a recurring theme in Winterbottom’s oeuvre. The Trip and its sequel The Trip To Italy, for instance, in which the comedians Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan (above) play mildly exaggerated versions of themselves, are films motivated by boredom, paradoxical though that may seem. (Both were originally produced for television as two seasons of six half-hour episodes, before being edited for cinema release.) Across a series of picturesque villages and expensive restaurants, first in the north of England and then along the Italian coast, the two men needle each other. Sometimes they are companionably, comfortably bored, but, just as often, they are irritated and bored, and so they compete, as professional comedians will, over the best impressions, the best put-downs, the most humiliating assessments of each other. The Trip ends with Coogan returning from the pair’s northern road trip to his empty London flat. The view from his high rise pad is beautiful, but he has nothing to do and nobody to talk to, and his loneliness is quietly devastating.
Across the breadth of Winterbottom’s filmmaking career, key collaborators reappear: Coogan is one, as are John Simm and Shirley Henderson, who, before they appeared in Everyday as a married couple separated by prison, both had roles in Wonderland (1999). His sixth and (so far) best feature film, Wonderland, marked the beginning of several long-term partnerships for Winterbottom, including those with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and composer Michael Nyman – both of whom also worked on Everyday.
Wonderland, too, is a film made deeply melancholy by the abiding boredom it depicts: three sisters who are bored of each other, bored of their partners and children, bored of the London streets along which they each mark their daily routine. The film has been described as Chekhovian, and it is: like Chekhov, Winterbottom is a precise observer of the beauty, and the agony, of passing time. Our lives are almost never dramatic, and we are rarely, if ever, our best selves. Time goes by, and we waste it. Nothing happens to us but time.