Review: The Red Turtle at Watershed

Ahead of the preview screening of The Red Turtle at Watershed on Tuesday May 23, a minute of silence was instigated to commemorate those who lost their lives in the Manchester terror attack on Monday May 22. Where no words can fix such a tragedy, the sense of community from a local to a worldwide scale feels more important than ever.

The Red Turtle didn’t know the attack was going to happen, nor did Watershed. But the sold-out audience felt united through the weight of silence. The Red Turtle is the first international co-production for Studio Ghibli with Wild Bunch, and the first feature-length film from dutch animator and director Michael Dudok de Wit.

The simple and stylistic animation tells the story of an unnamed man, shipwrecked, who learns to live and embrace the desert island. The eponymous turtle gives the film its magical flavour, creating a gorgeous story about love, nature, family and loneliness.

While the premise of a shipwrecked protagonist suggests fairly standard narrative expectations, The Red Turtle crafts itself as a work of quiet beauty. This isn’t a story about physical survival, or the angst against circumstances. The emphasis is placed on acceptance, on patience and on silence. This sounds fluid in its meaning because it is: simple imagery and story gives way to a breadth of possible interpretation, on the understanding and appreciation of what we make, and what makes us.

When asked about the symbolism of the turtle and the film’s magical realism, Dudok de Wit responds with a wistful ambiguity. Is the man alone? Why is the turtle so insistent on him staying on the island? The director’s answers point to intuition.

This doesn’t give a logical answer that the emotionally unstable audience craves, but it creates a sense of calm and acceptance of the possibilities – of hope, of peace. The film flirts with the idea of a fluid reality where consciousness and dreams belong to the realm of the subjective. Dudok de Wit touches upon the idea of a universal subjectivity, allowing audiences to take what they wish from The Red Turtle.

There is no real focus on character development. The film speaks through its emphatic music and the sounds the characters’ emotions – but without dialogue. There is no speech, but The Red Turtle isn’t a silent film; when the characters breathe, laugh, worry and fear, we feel it too. As this overcame Cinema 1, the audience laughed in unison and tried to muffle tears in turn. 

Whatever events unfurl, bringing people together and tearing them apart, the message of The Red Turtle although ambiguous is still a universal one. Over the evening, the film, open to interpretation in its enigmatic symbolism, spread a feeling of tranquillity and appreciation for a world which can unite, and will continue to do so.

Be it through a tantalising glittering pop concert or through a contemplative lyrical animated film, when individual words feel helpless, perhaps letting go of rationale and appreciating art can be enough for one evening.

Edited version published on Bristol24/7

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