Hold Back the Night

UK/Italy 1999

Reviewed by Philip Kemp


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

The UK, the present. Teenage Charleen, who lives with her mentally-handicapped sister Jackie and her father Michael, runs away from home, planning to stay with her Uncle Bob in Edinburgh. She teams up with anti-road protester Declan. When their protest camp is raided Charleen knocks out a security guard attacking Declan. The two - plus Killer, a rescued pitbull terrier - are helped to escape by Vera, an elderly woman driving to Orkney in her van. On the road north their respective stories emerge. Charleen and her sister were sexually abused by Michael; her mother killed herself. Declan, an animal-rights activist, is estranged from his farmer father. Vera, a lesbian stricken with cancer, wants to die at the Ring of Brodgar, a neolithic circle dear to her dead lover. In Edinburgh, Charleen and Declan take leave of Vera and find Uncle Bob, who reveals to Charleen he's both her father and grandfather. That night he tries to seduce her. Charleen and Declan flee and rejoin Vera.

In the Highlands, Charleen attempts suicide in a river, but is rescued by Declan. When the party is joined by two Danish hikers, Charleen sleeps with one of them, arousing Declan's jealousy. At the ferry crossing to Orkney Declan is detained by the police. Charleen and Vera proceed to the Ring, where Vera dies peacefully. Declan, who was stopped only because Killer was unmuzzled, rejoins Charleen. They return south, where Charleen denounces Michael to the police and is reunited with Jackie.


Phil Davis' second feature as director follows hard on the heels of fellow Alan Clarke alumnus Tim Roth's directing debut The War Zone and covers similar territory. Both tackle parental sexual abuse, make meaningful use of rural settings and end with retribution meted out to the abuser. But where Roth's film starts dark and gets steadily more so, Hold Back the Night sets out to trace a journey of rehabilitation, from urban darkness and despair to the healing, wide-skied spaces of the austerely beautiful Highland landscape.

Regrettably, it's a journey that's predictable almost from the outset. No sooner has screenwriter Steve Chambers set up his main characters than we can see just where and how they're going to wind up. Each of them arrives ready-labelled with suitable dialogue. Charleen lets us know she's screwed up by swearing constantly, while Declan and his mate Irish John spout New Age babble ("Too many maggots in the psychic landscape") to signal they're tree-hugging hippies. Even the pitbull Killer can't escape this preconditioning: when Charleen attempts suicide he slips into Lassie mode and barks to alert the others. This overdetermination infects the plot. It's not enough that Charleen has been abused by her dad and almost by her grandfather. She then learns that the latter, whom she first thought was her uncle, is really her father, a revelation that by this stage borders on the risible. Further underlining comes from Peter John Vettese's songs, which tell us that, "the world is turning, ever-changing," as Charleen experiences the redemptive spaces of the Highlands, or that "we're running out of time," as Vera drives onwards. Vettese claims his music was "inspired by the trip-hop tradition," but his oddly dated idiom sounds more like late-60s folk rock.

Davis' previous film as director i.d. similarly traced a psychological journey - an undercover cop infiltrates a gang of football hooligans - and likewise suffered from overschematic plotting and characterisation. If Hold Back the Night is the more affecting film of the two, it's partly because it follows an upward instead of a downward trajectory, and partly due to Cinders Forshaw's lyrical photography, but mainly thanks to its actors. Christine Tremarco, who is in danger of typecasting, plays Charleen largely on one sullen note; but Stuart Sinclair Blyth brings a bemused sweetness to the role of Declan, and Sheila Hancock's stoic grin and pain-filled eyes movingly convey the terror behind Vera's jaunty facade. The scene of her death, propped wearily against a stone awaiting the cold dawn, lifts the film on to a whole different plane.


Phil Davis
Sally Hibbin
Steve Chambers
Director of Photography
Cinders Forshaw
Adam Ross
Production Designer
Chris Roope
Peter John Vettese
©The Film Consortium Ltd
Production Companies
The Film Consortium and Film on Four present in association with the Arts Council of England/BIM and WavePictures a Parallax Picture
Supported by the National Lottery through the Arts Council of England
Developed by Sarah McCarthy with Swingbridge Video and Parallax Pictures Ltd
With the support of The Film Consortium Limited and The National Lottery
Torsten Leschly
Sarah McCarthy
Kate Ledger
Production Manager
Robert How
Location Manager
Michael Higson
Dorthe Gude
Angela Murray
Assistant Directors
Harry Boyd
Neil Tuohy
Joanna Crow
Judith Milne
Tim Bain
Lucy Enfield
Gail Stevens
Carol Crane
2nd Camera
Hew Davies
Andy Ford
Steadicam Operators
Kate Robinson
Fiachra Judge
Special Effects
Lars Bjorn
Art Director
Stephen Campbell
Costume Designer
Paul Farrow
Wardrobe Supervisor
Yvonne Simpson
Make-up/Hair Designer
Heather Millington
Front Titles Design
Martin Butterworth
End Titles/Opticals
General Screen Enterprises
Music Supervisor
Fraser Kennedy
Recording Engineer
Mark 'Tufty' Evans
"The Light of Day" by Peter John Vettese, performed by Grand Theft Audio, vocals: Isabelle Nesmon; "Urge to Breath", "To Be with You", "Will I Ever Be the Same" "When the Rain Comes" by Peter John Vettese, Sara Jay, performed by Grand Theft Audio, vocals: Sara Jay; "The Light of Day reprise" by Peter John Vettese, Sara Jay, performed by Grand Theft Audio, vocals: Sara Jay, Isabelle Nesmon; "Sleep Tonight" by Peter John Vettese, Tim Kellet, Ruth-Ann Boyle, performed by Grand Theft Audio, vocals: Ruth-Ann Boyle; "I'm Not Afraid" by Peter John Vettese, Heather Small, performed by Heather Small
Sound Recordist
Stuart Bruce
Re-recording Mixers
David Humphries
Alan Sallabank
Sound Editors
Kevin Brazier
Stephen Griffiths
Footsteps Artists
John Fewell
Julie Ankerson
Footsteps Recordist
Trevor Swanscott
Stunt Co-ordinator
Andy Bradford
Animal Handler
Dave Stewart
Christine Tremarco
Stuart Sinclair Blyth
Sheila Hancock
Richard Platt
Julie Ann Watson
Kenneth Colley
Tommy Tiernan
Andrew Livingstone
Bruce Bryon
Killer's owner
Peter Anders
Lars Oostveen
Hannah Bridges
young Charleen
Robert Stephani
kerb crawler
Bill Denniston
man sleeping rough
Derek Lea
guard at protest camp
John-Paul Hurley
copper at protest camp
Graham Eatough
policeman at checkpoint
Ralph Bolland
Jamie McNeish
Stephen Cartwright
drug dealers
United International Pictures (UK) Ltd
9,348 feet
103 minutes 52 seconds
Dolby digital
Colour by
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011