It’s probably the darkest side of human nature, buried deep and covered up for years and, in far too many instances, still is. But child abuse is something we’ve all had to recognise and confront: easy to say, but for those who’ve had their lives blighted, it demands a courage and resilience that few of us can imagine.
One of them is David Tait, at the centre of Sulphur And White. Not necessarily a name that strikes a chord, but in recent years he’s made a name for himself as a fearless and tireless fundraiser and campaigner for the NSPCC, particularly on the subject of child abuse. He’s climbed Everest on their behalf no less than five times, but the reason behind it all is that he was abused as a child. The film runs along two time lines, focusing on his boyhood, and also his pre-charity days as a highly successful city trader, during which time he met the love of his life, Vanessa. With one failed marriage under his belt because of his refusal to confront his past, what seems like an idyllic relationship starts heading in the same direction and is made worse by the arrival of their baby son. But the little boy also acts as the catalyst he desperately needs to face what happened and it changes the course of his life.
It’s a heavy subject and, to be honest, a heavy film. That’s not to say that it sensationalises its subject – Tait’s personal involvement in the film, as well as sensitive handling in the experienced hands of director Julian Jarrold, makes sure of that – but there are times when it’s something of a slog because of its overly slow pacing. It does, however, make up for it in other ways, especially the thread of honesty running through the film that you can’t fail to respect and even warm to.
The overwhelming plus point is the cast, one that does the subject matter more than justice. Mark Stanley, who seems to specialise in tough roles, is a great choice for Tait, never afraid to be a complete b*stard when the role demands it – and it does. Nor does he flinch from showing the pain behind the eyes and the struggle to confront it. There’s a pivotal scene between him and his estranged father (Dougray Scott) where the silence and the looks say it all – and when it becomes apparent that they’re as damaged as each other. Scott is almost unrecognisable under a heavy moustache as the loathsome father, provoking nothing but contempt, especially in one crucial moment when he’s flat on his back after a punch and looks up at his attacker like a surprised, pathetic child. Blink and you’ll miss it but it says it all about the man. With Cannes winner Emily Beecham as Vanessa and Anna Friel as Tait’s mother – the two look unexpectedly similar – it’s anchored by strong performances.
But this is not an easy watch in a number of ways and, in truth, probably not one that you’d want to see a second time. It’s hard going, because of the subject matter and the pacing, but it is also a film that deserves to be seen, both in terms of creating an understanding of the damage such experiences can cause and how, with time and support, victims can at least start coming to terms with them.
Drama | Cert: 15 | Modern Films | UK, 6 March 2020 | Dir. Julian Jarrold | Mark Stanley, Emily Beecham, Anna Friel, Dougray Scott, Anson Boon.
Watch our interviews with Mark Stanley, Emily Beecham, Dougray Scott and more from Sulphur And White here.