Bonnie, a middle-aged mother, is traveling for a difficult occasion: she’s going to witness the execution of her son’s murderer.
Tense and upset, she’s also traveling with her estranged daughter Caroline, who wants to support her mother but has her doubts about the execution. But Bonnie is consumed with her desire for retribution and won’t hear of anything else.
In her heightening emotions approaching November 1, the date of the execution, Bonnie begins to unravel as she grapples with the long arc of her son’s death and its consequences — and pushes her relationship with Caroline to its breaking point.
Writer-director Charlie Manton’s powerful family drama is as tightly-wound and full of tension as its main character. Caroline is a deeply angry and bitter person, grappling with an impossible loss and situation and thirsting for something like revenge. It’s a sorrow and grief that has haunted her for years, affecting her ability to relate to others and simply to be in the world, and while she’s difficult, rude and abrasive, it comes from a deep, molten core of heartbreak.
The storytelling, then, manages the trick of being deeply compassionate while not glossing over the extremes of Bonnie’s character. The visual approach is bleak in its winter-toned naturalism but muted and unobtrusive, as if trying to stay out of Bonnie’s way, and the writing doesn’t shy away from Bonnie’s fury, and how it warps her relations to others in her world.
The excellent writing and sensitive directing allow for renowned veteran actress Lindsay Duncan to offer a fiery, unapologetic, almost Shakespearean performance of a mother whose rage at what happened to her son consumes her — an anger that also has destroyed the relationship with her other, still-living child. Actress Sophia Myles plays off Duncan as Caroline with great sensitivity, and her initially quieter, almost meek character has the difficult job of swallowing her real needs and feelings, until her silence becomes too much to bear.
When things don’t go as planned, the damage of Bonnie’s understandable but toxic rage becomes clear, leading to a long-simmering confrontation bubbling with rage and resentment — and in which the words and feelings expressed become a shocking “point of no return” for Bonnie and her daughter.
A winner of a Student Academy Award, shortlisted for a BAFTA and longlisted for the best live-action short Oscar, “November 1st” may have an execution in its storyline, but it is less a topical political drama about capital punishment and more a character study in grief and rage, and how it can consume us to the point where it burns anything good around us in its fury.
Bonnie’s arc as a character only begins to shift at the end, just on the verge of getting what she wants — but only as the remaining source of connection and love she needed may be gone from her life forever. It is an ending that is bittersweet, devastating and almost ruthless in its evocation of what is ultimately an emotional wasteland — one whose ground is razed from rage and unresolved grief.