From the Archives: Shirley Adams (2009)

17 Jun


First-time director and scribe Oliver Hermanus delivers an astounding and intimate portrait of a mother’s struggles to care for her quadriplegic son. In Cape Town slum Mitchell’s Plain, Shirley Adams (a remarkable Denise Newman) cares for her young son Donovan (Keenan Arrison), a tragic victim of a gangland shooting which has left him paralysed from the neck down. Shirley’s husband has abandoned the pair; and Shirley — forced to give up work to care for Donovan — lives in relative poverty, relying on the good nature of neighbour Kariema (Theresa Sedras) to get by.

A tense opening scene, utilizing jerky close-up hand-held camerawork, follows Shirley as she struggles to save Donovan from an overdose of medication, in what may or may not be a suicide attempt. Hermanus’s unique and involving direction — shooting from behind Shirley’s head — increases the urgency and realism of the situation, and lends the picture an observational tone. It’s a totally absorbing approach and by subsequently portraying a raw, unfiltered view of Shirley’s daily travails (including the banal such as bathing Donovan, boiling an egg), Hermanus delivers a captivating and emotionally-charged picture.

Donovan, as expected, is a stubborn and frustrated young man, but it’s evident that his life provides Shirley’s existence with some meaning and direction. Her love and care for him is unconditional and she’s willing to do anything for him, even shoplifting on occasion. With her situation so obviously desperate, it’s surprising when Shirley turns down the offer of home help from med student Tamsin (Emily Child). But betraying her true feelings when she utters the words “If you die, what about me?” Shirley reveals an almost selfish devotion to Donovan and her pride goes some way to explaining her rebuttal of Tamsin.

Eventually warming to Tamsin, Shirley sees optimism in Donovan for the first time since the shooting. In private, though, his mood is darker, as in a personal moment with Tamsin his desperation is evident, tellingly exclaiming “I wish [Shirley] would just let me die.” A semblance of closure seems possible when four men are arrested in connection with Donovan’s shooting, yet a cruel twist ensures this development is far from welcome, paving the way for the heart-wrenching denouement.

The screenplay, co-penned by Stavros Pamballis and Hermanus, is sparse, but makes for compelling and emotive viewing. In addition, his engrossing direction portrays a fraught, hopeless situation in minute, close-up detail, heightening the sentiment felt toward the protagonists, helped by superb performances from Newman, masterful as the embattled Shirley, and Arrison, utterly convincing as Donovan. “Shirley Adams” is a confident, brutal and exceptional picture and quite simply essential viewing.


(Originally featured at on 20/10/2009)


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