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In Christian Cooke’s therapeutic drama, a sexual surrogate helps an incarcerated, deeply disturbed man break out of himself in order to make parole - dirty gem of a British drama premieres at the 31st edition of Raindance

Christian Cooke’s feature debut Embers begins with Amy (Ruth Bradley) standing contemplatively before a lake. We then see her undressing at home and getting into the shower. A shadowy figure walks past, and for a brief moment we are encouraged to entertain the possibility that this is a Psycho-style scenario – but then the man, in fact her boyfriend Joe (Samuel Anderson), joins her in the shower and they stand together and make love in a passionate manner that is obviously consensual. What unifies these two opening sequences, apart from the presence of Amy herself, is water, with which the film’s protagonist is associated from the outset.

Later Amy will meet a character named Dan (played by Cooke) who by contrast is associated with fire, and their interrelationship, forming the core of the film, is like a clash of the elements, as Amy, in her efforts to douse the still smouldering embers of Dan’s past, constantly risks fanning the flames and becoming engulfed in them herself. Amy is a sexual surrogate, helping clients through their intimacy issues by her proximity, touch and even intercourse. As her boss Helen (Clare Perkins) puts it, “You get them out of their heads and into their bodies,” while Helen herself sees the same clients for parallel therapy sessions where they talk through their feelings about the surrogate encounters. Amy too is hoping to move from sexual surrogacy into a “talking” role like Helen’s, but when a high-security psychiatric hospital approaches Helen as a last resort for inmate Dan who has not in any way progressed, or even uttered a word, in the 18 years that he has been detained there, Helen sees the possibility of recognition for their controversial therapy, and even a chance to get some lucrative government contracts, and so pressures Amy to take on the case, in return for an opportunity to become not just a talking therapist but a partner in the business. Accordingly Embers presents itself as a ‘one last job’ film, except that instead of a bank heist there is an attempt, working against the clock, to crack the code of Dan’s well-defended psyche, as Amy tests if her methods can break through to a man who is as much emotionally as physically shut in.

Most of Embers constitutes Amy’s sessions with Dan, conducted in a disused wing of the hospital and constantly monitored by Helen and concerned but sympathetic guard Gary (David Wilmot). As Dan is, at least at first, non-verbal, and will not even look at Amy, these scenes show Amy behaving in ever more unorthodox ways to get her client’s attention and to gain his trust, so that he will gradually open up to her and start to share his deepest traumas. Much as Helen is expressly on a mission to validate sexual surrogacy as a viable technique that can achieve tangible results, the film itself at times feels like a public information campaign, even propaganda, for the practice – yet Cooke’s screenplay, co-written with Dave Florenz, also teases out the problems that come with such therapy.

When, after sex with Joe in the shower but before we know what she actually does for a living, we see Amy sitting naked before a similarly naked man and masturbating him (off camera), we are left wondering whether she is having an affair or engaging in sex work. In fact both of these are true, at least in a qualified manner. Later, when Joe says to Amy, “Other people’s toast always tastes better, doesn’t it?”, he is not just talking about their breakfast, but indirectly approaching Amy’s need – a need that seems more than merely professional – to stray from her boyfriend and seek gratification elsewhere (“Don’t be afraid to drop your anchor for a while and see if your ship floats,” a former foster father had written to Amy, in acknowledgement of her inclination to wander). Joe tries to be understanding, but Amy’s surrogacy inevitably creates tensions in her private life. When Amy has sex with a client, it is transactional, paid service, i.e. business – but sometimes it is also clearly pleasure, not least when she quite literally brings her work home with her, or transgresses the boundaries of professionalism in other ways.

In this arena of projection, transference and rôle play, the therapist is being exposed as much as the client. If Dan has buried issues from his childhood which need to be disinterred and addressed, Amy has those too – not least a difficulty in showing commitment and settling down. While the job requires Amy to get her client to form an attachment to her, and ultimately, when her work is done, to cut the cord and remove the attachment, the truth is that she too forms her own attachment, and finds it hard to break. Despite the success of Amy’s methods, the authorities will ultimately, inevitably fail to go further with this form of therapy because they are reluctant to be seen providing to prisoners of the state a service that is readily perceived as little more than prostitution.

Intimacy, affection – the very emotions that Amy sets out to open up in others – are areas where she too needs help, even if her very name encodes the love that is in fact more central to her work than the sex through which it is embodied. Where the whole point of sexual surrogacy is to help the client realise, as Amy puts it, “that you’re capable of being loved, of loving, that you are worthy,” this is equally a lesson that Amy herself must learn if she is to advance in her career, as Embers rakes through the coals of the past to show the possibility of wholeness and healing in the present and future.

Embers premiered at the 31st Raindance Film Festival.

By Anton Bitel - 01-11-2023

Anton was born in Australia, and has lived in the UK since 1989. Proud father of twins, occasional Classicist and full-time caffeine junkie, he compensates for a general sense of disgruntlement by mop...

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