Despite the promise of hackneyed phrases like “sharing your grief”, the best that most of us can realistically hope for when grappling with loss is that what we’re feeling might overlap—in places—with the suffering of others. We can rarely assume a cookie-cutter replication of total, subjective experience and so have to hang on to precious points of mournful similarity. Grief, even in its more common standalone form, has been a melodramatic staple of cinema since its earliest days, yet the offhanded frequency of excessive body counts and the splatter-drenched bravado typical of the horror genre may not make it the first place we think to look for a perceptive interrogation of its nuances. And yet, Nina Forever – the year’s most emotionally intelligent horror film – is precisely that.
Written and directed by British brothers Chris and Ben Blaine, Nina Forever follows nineteen-year-old Holly (Abigail Hardingham), a paramedic trainee who earns her income by working in a supermarket. Although dismissed by her peers as “vanilla”, Holly is learning to embrace her dark side as she obsesses over her colleague Rob (Cian Barry), who has survived a suicide attempt after the sudden death of his 28-year-old girlfriend, Nina (Fiona O’Shaughnessy, of Channel 4’s Utopia). Whilst Holly is intensely attracted to the enigma of Rob’s pain, it is the sight of Holly devouring a pomegranate with her fingers and a box cutter that’s enough for the attraction to become mutual. In sequences clearly doffing a hat to the non-linear sex scene in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, undead Nina manifests through the mattress upon which her living ex-boyfriend and his new love interest are keeping things lively.
After the initial shock, Nina and Rob’s shagging becomes a ritualistic evocation to summon Nina as a way – initially, at least – of working towards some kind of manageable scenario for the alluring dead/alive threesome. This coincides with Rob’s quickly deteriorating relationship with Nina’s parents, who are struggling with Rob having met someone else. Obsessive drives being what they are, where Nina Forever goes is neither predictable nor wholly unexpected, but it is the perfect resolution to a thoughtful interrogation of not just grief, but sexual identity, love and doubt.
Nina Forever contains a subtle yet sharp awareness of its own preposterousness, and this is where its magic lies. What sounds like a premise from an episode of Black Mirror is executed with compassion and empathy, not just for Holly but also for Nina herself, who is presented closer to a perhaps reasonably jealous ex-lover rather than a monstrous villain as such. Understandably bitchy in the circumstances, Nina is also funny. And, considering she is a corpse whose head lolls about on a shattered spine and mangled limbs, to her credit she is undeniably sexy.
Nina also brings a much-needed comic edge to the film, and O’Shaughnessy delivers some of the film’s best lines: at one point, she cattily explains to Holly that the living girl is basically “Florence Nightingale job-sharing with Linda Lovelace”. But the film unquestionably belongs to Hardingham, whose Holly is the perfect blend of awkwardness and sexiness, without ever surrendering her performance to clichéd and empowerment-draining cuteness or quirkiness. This is a remarkable feat, and in large part it is Hardingham’s wholly believable performance that saves Nina Forever from tipping too far into absurdity.
That the undeniable silliness of its supernatural aspects are so out of whack with the profound emotional intelligence at its core has a crucial function: it provides little opportunity to deny the fact that Nina exists on a complex symbolic plane. Like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook last year, Nina Forever sculpts its story of loss and trauma around the generic codes and conventions of horror, tethering us to familiar structures as we venture into deep, dark places marked by very real, very human pain.
In a film where marked bodies are a consistent visual motif – the title itself refers to Rob’s tattoo – Nina Forever reminds us of the somatic aspects of experiences we tend to conceive as wholly emotional or intellectual. Bodies know things that our brains sometimes cannot comprehend, and Nina Forever is a horror film about learning to listen. The bomb blast radius of raw pain that invisibly appears around the grief-struck individual is a difficult one to identify, let alone penetrate. Nina Forever is a reminder that sometimes what is required to survive grief – for both those who suffer, and those around them – is a lot more than sentimental greeting card platitudes and never ending there-theres.
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