‘Epiphanies on Film!’

by Kelly McErlean

August 2007

Filmmakers face a difficult task when telling a story. How do they construct a narrative without losing the audience, without losing their all-important focus? When the audience drifts away from the thread of a film narrative, it is almost impossible to get them back. Losing focus on the narrative makes people change channel, leave the cinema, or go to a new web address. One technique that works to immerse the audience in the story (and immersion is critical when telling a story) is to use an ‘epiphany’. Though overused in television series, where they are usually a cumbersome attempt to add depth, epiphanies are often delicately employed in film. An epiphany on film is a sudden, intuitive realisation where all the pieces of the jigsaw fall into place. It compares to those moments in real life when everything becomes totally clear. Sometimes, the clarity resolves a conflict or confusion, at other times it is unwelcome and frightening. Often it is followed by a life-changing decision or determination to follow a new path. The character experiencing the epiphany is enlightened, and at the same time the audience’s position is fundamentally changed in relation to the story.

Epiphanies on film can be incredibly powerful. Usually, the audience is sharing the moment with the character and coming to a realisation at the same time. This makes for great storytelling, because for a few seconds, the audience is part of the narrative.

On film, some actors are much better at playing ‘epiphany moments’ than others. Mickey Rourke and Nicole Kidman seem to have them written into their contracts (like Tom Cruise running towards the camera) such is their ability to play ‘epiphanic’. Their acting styles are more suited to these moments than others because it takes charisma and gravitas to make it work, to avoid simply looking over-serious, or worse, confused! Actors with good screen presence can play epiphanies on film. Their performances are nuanced and communicate genuine feelings.

Epiphanies are normally positioned at ‘plot points’ in the script. This is where the direction of the story changes significantly. A good actor will ‘guide’ us through the plot point and from there the story moves in a new direction. A film epiphany can grab the audiences attention, particularly if the moment is empathetic. It brings us closer to the story and characters as all become ‘enlightened’ at the same time.

Some film epiphanies are now classic scenes, such as the end of  “The Planet of the Apes” (1968) when Taylor (Charlton Heston) almost walks into the Statue of Liberty and realises he has been on planet Earth all along. Or “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) where Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness) finally realises that the bridge he is building for the Japanese army is not just a monument to British ingenuity, but is of significant strategic importance to the enemy. In “Bonnie & Clyde” (1967) Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) senses he and fellow bank robber Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) are about to be ambushed by the police. Frenetic editing connotes erotic tension between them. They are vulnerable and have no escape route. In a sequence of split-second looks, nods and blinks they become ‘aware’ of the danger and momentarily freeze, before futilely trying to react. Our heightened sense of consciousness is aligned with theirs, and in the same split second we recognise and understand their fate.

Other epiphanies are more subtle. When they work they really work and result in a pure cinematic experience for the audience.

In the “The Mission” (1986) Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert DeNiro) is a slave hunter who repents his violent past after killing his brother. He is recruited by a Jesuit priest Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) to help build a mission in the South American wilderness. The land where the community lives is given to the Portuguese by the church and slavers are allowed in again. In the face of overwhelming odds Mendoza breaks his vows and organises the community to fight their approaching enemy while Father Gabriel prays for their salvation. Mendoza’s plan starts to come apart as the slavers near, the defences’ fail, his skills tested as he tries to repair defences while fending off the invaders. Mendoza’s epiphany comes when the mission community is surrounded on all fronts, with no hope of relief. A series of shots ring out and he is mortally wounded. Lying motionless, he watches the progress of the slavers as they overrun the mission, and realises that all is lost. As an ex-slaver he knows what will happen to the prisoners, but he is dying, powerless to help.

In “A Prayer for the Dying” (1987) Martin Fallon (Mickey Rourke) is an IRA bomber who attempts to target a truck full of British soldiers. As the truck approaches the trip wire placed across the country road, it is overtaken by an Ulsterbus school van carrying children. From a hilltop, Fallon can ‘see’ the children talking and playing inside the van, it is suddenly clear to him and his men what is about to happen. Fallon’s intense concentration is replaced by a look of horror. He cannot prevent the school van tripping his explosive trap and killing the children. In this moment the audience watches the fighting spirit drain from Fallon, he is finished. His responsibility for this terrible event finally breaks his commitment to the cause he once supported.

In “Birth” (2004) Anna (Nicole Kidman) is a young widow who believes a ten year old boy (Cameron Bright) is the reincarnation of her dead husband. At first she dimisses the boy, but is unnerved by what he knows about her husband and their life together. Later, in the theatre, through one long close up of Kidman’s face, her epiphany is played out as a gradual dramatic ‘acceptance’ that the boy is actually her husband, returned to be with her. Her facial expressions cross a gamut of emotions, finally ending with joy. Anna had never stopped grieving over the sudden loss of her husband, after ten years she became engaged to be married to a new man, and appeared to be moving on. She puts her engagement on hold and makes plans to be with her ‘husband’ again, even calculating when they can be remarried. But in the end it is false epiphany, brought about by the terrible grief she has experienced. The boy learned everything about her from her dead husband’s letters to his mistress. In her state of profound grief she wanted to believe that he could return.

In “Angel Heart” (1987) Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is a 1950’s private eye hired by the mysterious Mr Cyphre (Robert DeNiro) to track down wartime ‘crooner’ Johnny Favorite who is seriously in Cyphre’s debt. Angel travels to New Orleans where his investigations appear to connect him to a series of gruesome murders. He learns that Favorite sold his soul to the devil in return for fame and fortune, but had tried to renege on the deal by conducting a black magic ritual to replace his soul with that of a young soldier. Angel’s epiphany happens when he realises that he himself is Johnny Favorite, that Cyphre is the devil who has come to collect. But Cyphre needs Favorite to learn his true identity before he can take him ‘below’. Favorite denies all, repeating “I know who I am. I know who I am.” We are confused, can his epiphany be correct? The murky final shot confirms it is as he is travels downwards in a noisy creaky lift, ‘to hell’.

In “The Long Good Friday” (1980) Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) is a London mob boss who’s empire starts to fall apart following a lucrative deal with the US mafia. Shand’s confusion turns to anger as bombs go off all over London, apparently intending to kill him. Eventually he discovers that one of his henchmen has stolen money from the IRA. Before he can organise retaliation he is kidnapped and driven away in a long, agonising final shot. With a gun pointed at his head he knows his fate is sealed. His face betrays flashing memories of where it all went wrong, how he misread the signs, and how he ended up in the back of this car, being driven to a remote location to be executed.

In “Secrets and Lies” (1996) white lower-class Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) is visited by a young black woman called Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) claiming to be the daughter who Cynthia gave up for adoption many years ago. At first, Cynthia insists that Hortense’s claim is simply not possible. Her baby was adopted but the father was white, and she swears she was never even ‘with’ a black man, something she thinks she would remember! However, as her memories start to come back into focus, Cynthia remembers fragments of a drunken night. Despite the gaps in her memories, there was another man, who theoretically could have been Hortense’s father. Cynthia’s epiphany is highly emotional yet strangely comical. She had never actually seen the baby, and she was certainly not ‘chaste’ in her youth. The middle-aged woman is shocked to discover that a forgotten ‘tumble’ in the sixties led to her confusion over the father’s identity. If she had actually seen the baby she could probably have guessed that when identifying the father she had got the wrong man.

Epiphanies are not all character-based. In some films the audience experiences an epiphany of their own. In Louis Malle’s French war drama “Au Revoir Les Enfants” (1987) a boarding school in Vichy France shelters Jewish children from the Nazis during World War II.  The school is a safe-haven where they can lead a normal life. Betrayed by a school kitchen attendant, the Jewish children are identified when the gestapo arrive and are taken from the safety of the school and executed in a concentration camp. The audience is starkly reminded of the reality of war-time life, and the dangers faced by children and adults alike. Their hopes and promise are destroyed by the French collaborators whose passive complicity is represented as deliberate ignorance. Aware of the consequences of their actions, they do not ask questions and do not challenge the Nazis. Our epiphany encompasses feelings of loss, remorse and the great question, could they have done more to protect the innocent.

Epiphanies on film need great scripts and great actors. They grab hold of an audience and immerse them in a story by locking them into an shared experience. They always look so simple, so natural, but in truth, that is what makes them such a special cinematic experience.


August 2007