Silver Haze Movie Review | a Compassionate Look at Working-class Life in London

A new style of filmmaking emerged in Britain in the late 1950s. Writers like John Osbourne and Alan Sillitoe worked right alongside directors like Lindsay Anderson and Ken Loach to help redefine British cinema with a new wave of social-realist films. These artists turned the working lives of ordinary people into stirring dramas fit for the big screen, intent on exposing the inequality of the status-quo.

Together, they moved far beyond the Victorian moralism of Charles Dickens and the work-house sentimentality of Charlie Chaplin to create the archetype of The Angry Young Man. By and large, their stories followed disaffected thirty-something year old males deprived of opportunity by circumstance. Picture James Dean minus the Hollywood good looks and you’ll get the idea. But while the movement is best remembered today for the influence of their brooding Northern gentlemen protagonists on pop-culture, perhaps the most ground-breaking film of this period was actually Tony Richardson’s adaptation of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey. This heartbreaking tale follows a seventeen year old girl left by her mother to fend for herself and forge a new life. Delaney’s story has inspired everyone from author Jeanette Winterson to singer-songwriter Morrissey. And it is out of this same creative wellspring that Silver Haze emerges.

Silver Haze is a cathartic character study of one working-class woman’s journey from anger and resentment to freedom and forgiveness. For her highly personal performance as the character Franky, lead actor Vicky Knight has earned the prestigious Teddy Award at the Berlin International Film Festival in recognition of her outstanding work as a queer woman in film. The story of the film is inspired by Knight’s own experiences as a victim of arson. And indeed, from conception to execution, director Sacha Polak’s explorative style of filmmaking blurs the line between fiction and reality. To further muddy those waters, Knight’s real-life sister also appears prominently in the film as Franky’s sister, Leah. Plus, throughout production actors wore their own clothes and did their own makeup. This is not a blockbuster spectacle nor a staid soap opera. We are not being told a story. We are being asked to take two hours out of our day and live the life of another human being.

Polak’s father was a documentary filmmaker and it’s clear her work owes a great deal to that medium. Her focus on naturalism and her keen eye for small details distinguish her as a director with an interest in the world around her and beyond. As a Dutch filmmaker, she brings her own unique sensibility to the kitchen sink drama tradition. She avoids easy tropes, cliches, and stereotypes. Smartly, she consciously avoids indulging in poverty porn in favor of a warmer and more nuanced look at working-class life in London. Of course, that’s not to say that the story embellishes the difficult realities of this life either.


Fifteen years prior to the events of the film, an arson fire forever changed Franky’s family and drastically altered the course of her life. Initially, the mystery of what happened to Franky draws us in but soon gives way to a deeper look at her psyche and her relationships. Knight’s scars are shown matter-of-factly and they are never exploited for tension or melodrama. Likewise, Franky’s lust for revenge is dramatic without ever feeling sensationalized. She is dealing with a unique cocktail of suspicion, abandonment, and guilt. Polak and Knight’s previous collaboration Dirty God also dealt with the trauma of a burn-survivor but the autobiographical nature of this depiction lends a particular weight to proceedings here.

Franky works as a nurse. When she enters into a romantic relationship with a patient named Florence, she must confront her sexuality and her identity while still dealing with her ongoing trauma. But there is a dangerous anger in her that her on-again / off-again lover is only too happy to indulge. And her quest for justice ultimately threatens to perpetuate a cycle of violence. Along the way, the filmmakers deal with additional themes of illness, death, loyalty, and rebirth.

Above all else, our characters are forced to find new meaning and purpose in their lives. For example, Florence seems to find some fleeting sense of meaning in acting. But her performance showcase doesn’t make sense to Franky. No, Franky must find meaning elsewhere. She must move on with her life and find comfort in her family and in the new friends she has made. Meanwhile, her sister Leah finds meaning in her newfound religion, Islam. As each character finds what works best for them, they come together and / or grow apart. In a dinner table discussion, they ponder whether or not there is life after death. The filmmakers don’t answer that question. But they do tell us that there is a life for Franky after the fire – even if it’s not the life she expected.

Worth noting is music supervisor Laura Bell’s exemplary soundtrack which features both ambient background music and diegetic songs played by actor Esme Creed-Miles on guitar. Tibor Dingelstad’s vivid cinematography puts us in Franky’s shoes, eschewing voyeurism for an almost first-person sense of intimacy. And the entire supporting cast pull their weight to create a strong ensemble worthy of the material at hand.

In the end, whether Franky and Florence end up together does not matter. Silver Haze is a story about how one chance encounter can change your life in ways you can’t even imagine. And what could be more inspiring than that?

Silver Haze — released in UK and Irish cinemas 29th March.

Featured Image Credit