There’s a moment, not too long into Nina Forever, when a very satisfying realisation is made. This is a rare thing: an undead girlfriend film that isn’t just about the boyfriend. Happily, the debut feature from writer-director duo Ben and Chris Blaine finds many other ways to impress. It’s funny, it’s moving, it’s sharp, it’s sweet, it’s gruesome, it’s sexy and it’s…it’s really just very, very good.
Abigail Hardingham plays Holly, a paramedic student who works in the local supermarket. She’s got her eye on her co-worker Rob (Cian Barry), who recently tried to kill himself after his girlfriend Nina (Fiona O’Shaughnessy) died. After some clumsy attempts, Holly and Rob finally connect…only to be joined by the animated, blood-soaked, naked and sharp-tongued Nina, who’s got a lot to say about the situation she’s found herself in.
Despite its horror elements and some hilarious black comedy, Nina Forever is first and foremost a drama about relationships, and the truths that people have to face about themselves if they’re going to be happy. Holly is struggling to find her own identity and to show others that they have no idea who she really is. Rob has found himself in a co-dependent situation with Nina’s grieving parents that shows no sign of ending. They’re both determined to make this relationship work and move on together. So why won’t Nina go away?
The appearances of Rob’s dead lover, emerging from the mattress, draw heavily on the blood-slicked eroticism of Clive Barker’s work, even before Holly decides that maybe this newcomer should be included in their lovemaking. The Blaines show real confidence in the film’s gearshifts from grotesquerie to practicality. Nina Forever is bitterly funny when confronting the realities of this bizarre recurring triangle, from the issue of the ruined sheets (“I don’t know why you keep buying red,” wonders Nina) to the details of Nina’s injuries making stimulation impossible.
But as funny as it is, Nina Forever consistently finds ways to make a devastating emotional impact. The film’s wintry setting works perfectly, Rob’s grief is portrayed sensitively and sincerely, and Elizabeth Elvin and David Troughton’s performances as Nina’s parents are superb. Crucially, the character of Holly is refreshingly complex, her determination combined with the growing sense that she’s not being completely honest with herself, as Nina finds a way to stymie her attempts at happiness at every turn. “I’d love it if my boyfriend tried to kill himself because I died,” she tells her colleagues at the start of the film, but she soon discovers that dark is difficult. It’s one thing to be up for involving the broken, bleeding and vocal Nina in their lovemaking, it’s another to listen to this woman deconstruct her motives and her weaknesses. It’s Holly’s journey that we’re watching, not Rob’s.
The three leads are perfectly cast. O’Shaughnessy (Utopia‘s Jessica Hyde) is incredible as Nina, and Hardingham delivers a star-making performance. She’s stunning, creating a character who is relatable, conflicted and fascinating. Barry also deserves praise for his thoughtful, sensitive turn as a character who’s already lost even before the madness begins.
By treating a bizarre, ridiculous situation with determined realism, the Blaines have created something that is both otherworldly and somehow relatable. The humour bleeds into melancholia, the depression bleeds into absurdity, and the result is an absolute triumph. It’s bittersweet, heartfelt, heart-breaking, thoughtful, hilarious, audacious and absolutely fantastic. Nina Forever is brilliant.
Nina Forever will be released in the UK later this year by StudioCanal. This review is an extension of our Film4 FrightFest coverage. Keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.