Coal In Their Veins [Dalit Merhav, UK, 2021]

Set in Yorkshire, Coal In Their Veins tells a universal story of the devastation wrought by addiction on the family of the addict – in this case, a single, working class mum. “Inspired by real events,” the films offers a textbook study of addiction in all of its trivially common, yet undeniably poignant building blocks, escalating from casual lies and requests for petty cash, to stealing, begging, and elaborate scams to swindle relatives out of cash and prized belongings.

The story is visually well executed by director Dalit Merhav and cinematographer Mark Stokes, with attention paid to details, such as chipped ceramic tea cups, and special care taken to ensure colour gamma and lighting bring each shot to life. An opening credits montage-throwback to the Yorkshire miners’ strike of the 80s is particularly impressive and helps situate the action in time and space in a novel way. However, further references to these events and how they might have impacted the lives of the protagonists are oblique and the titular “coal in their veins” is one of few hints as to how the collapse of the coal industry may have impacted this particular family and led to the disappearance of a father figure and the subsequent drug addiction of the son.

The local context is established well through detail, settings, and accents, and provides a compelling background to the late night wanderings, soul-searching, and ultimate growth of the main character, Alison, portrayed by Lisa Allen. However, it remains a curio not to probe deeper into the emotional world of the characters or their inability to genuinely connect with each other.

The cast deliver strong performances and while a lot is placed on the shoulders of Lisa Allen, who masterfully combines awkwardness with kindness, gullibility and an iron spine, it is Declan O’Connor who delivers a scene-stealing performance as the addict son, Carl. Although the script gives him very few redeeming features – he is spiralling towards rock bottom for most of the film’s twenty four minutes – Declan O’Connor still manages to make Carl a sympathetic figure. He is just on the right side of charming, vulnerable and troubled, and you can’t help but wonder how he must feel when overhearing others question his ability to stay clean or when, after being warmly greeted by his mom on his release from a correctional facility, he is then jabbed with the glib, “you look like a drug addict.”

The failure of the film to explore this and probe deeper into the relationship between mother and son, prior to it being completely redefined by addiction, is what lessens the impact of the emotional catharsis of the main character. The build-up of frustration and helplessness that Alison experiences while struggling to connect with and find a way to help her son, is well portrayed by Lisa Allen, with music and lighting creating a heightened sense of theatricality when she finally snaps. But the sense of loss is there from the beginning, as most of Alison’s screen time is devoted to wandering across town or smoking in anxious anticipation as yet another hope is crushed by her absentee son. So when the time comes for Alison to take a stand and refuse to continue to be an enabler, imploring Carl to take his life in his own hands before leaving him behind, it is just another instance of two ships that pass each other in the night and not the emotional high note that director Dalit Merhav might have hoped for.

Technically superior, the Coal in Their Veins covers a lot of ground in less than half an hour and offers up impressive, thought-provoking performances. However, it can’t escape a sense of theatricality and performance that doesn’t quite hit the right emotional frequency to deliver something truly unique and heartbreaking.

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