Cillian Murphy is sorry for everything in poignant post-apocalyptic film

By Paul Glynn
Entertainment & arts reporter

  • Published
Cillian MurphyImage source, Manchester International Festival

In All of This Unreal Time, a short film that gets its world premiere at the Manchester International Festival, actor Cillian Murphy plays a man on an existential mission.

Striding through the empty lockdown streets of an anonymous city at night, his nameless character reflects on shame, guilt and masculinity, and poetically berates himself for not having treated other people, and the planet, with more care.

It's a journey that many people will have been on over the past year and a bit.

"I came out here to apologise," he declares into the ether. "I find myself, at the midpoint of my life, in a dark wood, and now I'm here, in the forest of my mind, and every tree is shame, every living thing is a reprimand, and I realise, I must speak freely now, before I lose you."

It's never quite clear exactly what the Peaky Blinders star is sorry for, or who he is apologising to throughout the 25-minute film. But writer Max Porter, who penned the initial script pre-pandemic, hopes he will appeal to most viewers' better natures.

'An element of real strangeness'

"That's really the point of the piece - we want it to be collaborative with the viewer, so that they are confronting their own religious, spiritual, political, physical relationships to the world around them," Porter explains.

"It was a kind of post-apocalyptic piece, or certainly a kind of depressive confessional, turning into something ecstatic, we hope.

"But to film it during a pandemic gave it an element of real strangeness that we couldn't possibly have planned."

Image source, Manchester International Festival
Image caption,
Cillian Murphy has starred in Peaky Blinders and 28 Days Later

Porter is perhaps best known for his debut novel Grief is the Thing with Feathers and the Booker Prize-listed Lanny. For his latest project, he worked alongside film and music video director Aoife McArdle (U2, Bryan Ferry, Anna Calvi) to bring the ever-evolving monologue from the page to the screen.

McArdle found some "extraordinary locations around London", Porter notes. "Places that looked like they could be from a kind of broken sci-fi version of London or an abandoned film set version of London in this character's mind.

"It's almost like he's sort of testing out real places against the places in his mind."

'Embraced the madness'

The film-maker found the process of charting one man's internal and external torment to be pretty "poignant" right now, she says, and it put her "back in tune" with why she loves doing what what she does.

She also found that Murphy didn't even mind too much when she made him lie down in the mud several times during one particularly dark and rainy night shoot.

"We kind of went with the adrenaline of it," she says. "I feel like you do feel that everything he's saying is unfiltered and happening in real time, and even though the words are so poetic it still feels very natural and that's down to his {Murphy's] skills, and the way he embraced the madness of the way we shot it!

"It all adds, I think, to the sensory experience you get."

Image source, Manchester International Festival
Image caption,
The film is like a cross between Dante's Inferno, Samuel Beckett and The Verve's Bittersweet Symphony music video

Murphy, who shot to fame nearly 20 years ago in another post-apocalyptic movie, 28 Days Later, said he felt "very fortunate to have had the opportunity to make this work during the turmoil and sadness of 2020".

Well-written and stylishly shot, All of This Unreal Time also comes wrapped in an intensely industrial-sounding and naturalistic score composed by electronica DJ and producer Jon Hopkins, alongside Aaron and Bryce Dessner from the US alternative rock band The National.

Taylor Swift fans may know Aaron Dessner as the man who helped to make her recent Grammy-winning album, Folklore, while BBC Radio 6 Music listeners and festival ravers will be aware of Hopkins' expertise in creating ambient minimal techno beats.

'Industrial and dark'

"There's a real prevalence of industrial noise and darkness of the city and it gradually moves into more of a natural space towards the end," Hopkins explains. "When you hear some gentle sounds in nature, they're particularly nourishing for having been through that all that darkness before.

"I'm personally most proud of the ending scene," he adds. "I won't give away what it is, but that was one of the places where music had a little bit of space to breathe and there was an opportunity for some more pensive melody and some actual chords! Because a lot of it is very industrial and dark."

Image caption,
Jon Hopkins performing for BBC Radio 1's Annie Mac show in 2018

Until Sunday, visitors to this year's slightly re-imagined biennial arts festival can experience the film inside a "next level" immersive light and sound installation at the Manchester Central venue. Complete with "birds surrounding you, and bottles on the street clinking", McArdle beams.

For those unable to make it to Manchester, the film has been made available to view on the festival website.

Figure caption,
Warning: Third party content may contain adverts

Whichever way people choose to absorb it, both the director and writer want the real work to begin for audiences as soon as the end credits roll.

"You'll get something that is totally baffling and asking you to answer questions," Porter concludes.

"What is it? Is it a film? Is it a confession? Is it a poem? Is it a rant? [Or] is it Cillian having a breakdown?"

All of This Unreal Time is on at Manchester Central from 1-4 July, and on demand until 18 July as part of Manchester International Festival.

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