Webster’s Dictionary defines false advertising as “The crime or misconduct of publishing, transmitting, or otherwise publicly circulating an advertisement containing a false, misleading, or deceptive statement.”
I Start Counting! (1970) is billed as a psychological thriller. It’s not. It’s a coming-of-age film. So why have a group of people declared it to be a psychological thriller? Well, you see, it just happens to be a British coming-of-age film. Seriously, there is something truly messed up with British COA films. With their American equivalents, you’ll get the few that have a gritty take on life or the tragic death of a friend. Still, they all have growth of the character and triumph over some adversity. British ones will remind you that life is a grotesque pantomime. We are only united in death by arbitrarily and brutally killing a pet with a claw hammer. If The Karate Kid were made in Britain, Ralph Macchio would have snapped his own leg while trying to perform the crane kick.
Set in Bracknell’s brutalist every town of Newtown, Wynne (Jenny Agutter) is a fourteen-year-old school girl living in a Brutalist nightmare new build flat of the 1960s/70s with her adopted family. Attending a local Catholic secondary with her friend Corinne (Clare Sutcliffe), Wynne has a teenage crush on her thirty-year-old stepbrother George (Bryan Marshall) and this is automatically uncomfortable. Seriously, the film got a bit too Woody Allen for my liking.
In the locality, a string of unsolved murders of women have occurred. After seeing George with scratch marks on his back and a bloody jumper, Wynne thinks he’s the murderer but still daydreams about marrying him when she grows up. While visiting her old home before its demolition, Wynne becomes adamant about finding out if George is the murder and convince him to stop.
It might have been a bit rash in calling I Start Counting! false advertising. There are plenty of uncomfortable watching moments: this is a film about a fourteen-year-old, being played by a sixteen-year-old, dealing with topics of sex and murder. So, genre-wise, it’s at a meeting point between coming-of-age and psychological thriller with loss of innocence being a central theme. That’s one thing that’s left out of many such films; growing up means confronting some of the worst aspects of the human race. Wynne goes through the standard rites of passage, her first crush, her first drink, her first all-night out but she also experiences her first real fear, her first confrontation with mortality.
Wynne is at that stage between childhood and adulthood, a liminal space reflected in the film’s motifs. Director David Greene shoots from low angles; we see the world how Wynne sees it. But we also see the adult world cut off, behind frosted windows and through cracks in the door. Doors frame the action and revelations, and Greene chooses not to hide things in shadow but film them in harsh, hard lights, so neither you nor Wynne can hide from what happens on screen. It’s pretty grim—a form of careless, every day, disturbing.
There is a chemistry between Agutter and Marshall in their roles. You get the honest impression that Marshall’s George cares for his step-sister, but it’s purely brotherly, I can’t stress that enough. It’s a healthy older-brother-looking-out-for-kid-sister relationship.
There is enough mystery and enough drama to keep you watching to the end. There are a couple of dangling plot holes or red herrings that maybe should have stayed in the editing suite. Still, overall, I Start Counting! is a classic example of the change happening to British cinema during the 60s/70s. A shift away from swinging London into the rapidly transforming industrial heartlands.
The disc comes with a BFI smorgasbord of extras. However, quite a few of these deal with I Start Counting! and more with the rapid change of life in Britain. Save for three; Kickstart featuring an interview with Agutter about her early career, Loss of Innocents – a video essay by Chris O’Neill about the themes in the film, An Apprentice with a Master’s Ticket – where screenwriter Richard Harris looks back over his career, the majority of the extra featurettes are more flavour for that period. Taken from the BFI vaults, they provide context to the new builds and give a taste for the film period.
- A Kickstart: Jenny Agutter remembers I start counting!
- Loss of Innocents
- Worlds Within Worlds: The musical mindscapes of Basil Kirchin
- An Apprentice with A Master’s Ticket: Richard Harris on writing for the screen.
- I Start Building
- New Towns for Old
- Charley in New Town
- New Town from Old
- Don’t be like Brenda
- Danger on Dartmoor
I Star Counting! is out now on Blu-Ray