[This review complements Tychy’s ongoing series on premonitory fiction. Ed.]
The Edinburgh filmmaker Amy Hardie’s The Edge of Dreaming (2010) begins a little like the famous Jack Woltz scene in The Godfather, namely with a bed and a dead horse. Ms. Hardie dreams that her pet horse George addresses her with the question “are you ready to film?,” before instructing her that “I’m going to fall to the left.” I imagine that if a horse could talk, it would speak in a silly, droopy voice, but I am afraid that Hardie is not specific on this point. Ripped from her bed by her uncharacteristically lucid dream, Hardie ventures in search of George to reassure herself that he is okay. But he is dead: felled by a heart attack.
And so to dream number two, in which Hardie’s deceased husband Arthur Howes warns her that she is going to die within a year, at the age of 48. “I heard it and thought you would want to know… I’m sorry,” Howes confesses, presumably after catching some snatches of gossip in an angelic cafeteria. “If I take the dream seriously,” Hardie muses, “this is the last year of my life.” There is an amusing scene immediately after this dream when she supervises one of her teenaged son’s first driving lessons. We can tell what is going through her head.
It is left to dream number three to detail the manner of Hardie‘s demise: she tumbles off another horse to a “quick, painless” death. One would think that this dream rather gives the game away, as all that Hardie has to do now is to take a gap year from riding after her forty-eighth birthday, but it appears that this simply does not occur to her.
Hardie lives with the Edinburgh man of letters and psychotherapist Peter Kravitz; their two daughters; and the teenaged son leftover from her first marriage, in a farmhouse somewhere between Edinburgh and the border. As every reader of E. F. Benson’s fiction will know, the traditional ghost story always makes a nest for itself in a lavish country house, and Hardie’s story is happy enough to go along with this, contrasting the sweetness of the farm air with the terror waiting in the dead of night. Indeed the film unashamedly begins with the line that “it all started one stormy night when the electricity cut out…”
The cast of the film are likeable enough, which is an impressive achievement considering that, at least as a concept, they can only be thoroughly irritating: a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed bourgeois family, who have captured a slice of fairytale countryside under the flag of suburbia, and who live as happily as dolls in a dolls’ house, with horses in their meadows and the richest Scottish flora and fauna decking their estate like Christmas decorations. Hardie has three jobs (I cannot remember what they are), as well as being a mother, but with my pronounced suspicion of the middle class, it seems to me that her farmhouse idyll is rather like the pool at a lively holiday resort, into which she can plunge and be at peace.
Hardie’s film is characterised by an immense sense of roundedness, or rather it captures a very rounded bourgeois individual from a multiplicity of perspectives. She is both filmed and filmmaker, so at times she is filmed filming. She seems to be jack and master of all trades, so that her own fascinating story respectively provides a model and a case study for the artist and the scientist, who are also played by herself. She views her crisis both from the lonely perspective of the selfish individual, and from securely within the family which she selflessly supports. Her instinctive engagement with her crisis is shadowed by her creative exploitation of its narrative and her educated appreciation of the forces which shape it, but the whole chorus is wondrously harmonious and she never becomes detached from herself.
The result is a narration which is altogether personal and social, a testimony and an analysis, and enlightened and truly poetic. Narrated by a voice which conveys both the distant clarity of a BBC newsreader and the truth of somebody talking in their sleep, and contained within a film which never loses the endearingly homemade quality of folk carvings and scrapbooks of leaf-pressings, Hardie’s eye finds images of a power and colour which somehow complete her story: a dead stream, poisoned with iron from an abandoned mine; a blackbird which has flown into her kitchen window and broken its neck; her beautiful flame-haired son; and the reduction of her mother’s body to a household ornament, in the vase of ashes which her sister still keeps on the windowsill of her New York apartment.
After fretting over her premonition, Hardie suddenly succumbs to a devastating illness which leaves her lungs on the verge of collapse, and she flees to Little France for surgery. Cue an aria from science, which explains that Hardie’s premonitory dream may have delivered a warning from her subconscious, which had already sensed the deterioration of her lungs. Yet the unearthly, or at least all the stuff which science does not do very well, in turn takes to the stage when Hardie visits a shaman, who induces a sort of trance-dream in which Hardie is reconciled with her first husband: “I never really said goodbye to him.”
The trouble is that I do not believe any of it. The narrative is too much of a story, or rather it is too perfect a narrative. Tellingly, perhaps, the Scottish Arts Council awarded Hardie some funding in 2001 to make a “genre-crossing” film about death, particularly in reference to “a little-known Gaelic myth: the threshold walker… a person nominated to accompany the dying individual to the end.” The film is cited in POV’s list of Hardie’s work as being released in 2002, but a 2006 article in the Scotsman which huffs and puffs at the negligent allocation of Scottish Arts Council funding, describes Hardie’s film as still being “two or three years away” from completion.
Perhaps she was simply waiting for the right dream, and it was merely a fine coincidence that her own husband would assume the role of a threshold walker, but it all rather casts doubt on the picture of Hardie embarking upon a spontaneous journey towards extinction’s alp. But – and mark my words! – there is no suggestion that her lung disease was literally dreamed up, or that she killed her own horse, merely to provide material for a film which she had been planning for over five years. The Edge of Dreaming remains an aesthetically gorgeous and a very worthy film, and it is solely down to individual taste if one wishes to flavour it with a wee pinch of salt.