Trading on the past
06 March, 2020 — By Dan Carrier
Mark Stanley and Emily Beecham in Sulphur and White
SULPHUR AND WHITE
Directed by Julian Jarrold
THE lifelong effect of being abused as a child – and carrying the evil foisted on you – is at the heart of this thoughtful and moving true story.
David Tait was abused by a group of paedophiles as a 10-year-old. This is a film of his memoir, and lays out what happened, how it affected him, and what he needed to do to somehow try to understand.
We meet young David (played as a child by the excellent Hugo Stone) as his family settle into a new life in apartheid South Africa. We discover his authoritarian father (Dougray Scott) has moved from the UK to take up a job in a bank – and is keen to settle in with those of his colour and class. In an extremely uncomfortable opening half hour, the scene is set: other white men treating their wives and children horribly, having black servants around them who are non-human in their eyes, and generally behaving as bigoted colonialists. The banality of evil seeps from each scene, and you’ll want to shout at Joanne (Anna Friel), David’s heavy-drinking mother, to get out, get out, get out.
One day, one of his father’s friends, who owns a petrol station and store out on the dusty plains of the Transvaal, tells his father Donald he will find some work for the 10-year-old to do.
It sets in motion a violently disturbing chain of events, as David is sexually assaulted not only by his employer but the man’s friends as well.
We watch as his childhood is ruined, as his mother, abused by her violent husband who also abuses his son, descends into an abyss of drink and drugs to escape the pain she faces.
We then leap forward in time to find David (Mark Stanley) estranged from his parents – and a seemingly successful trader in a Canary Wharf glass-and-steel edifice, playing the stock market to great success. Slimy boss Jeff (Alistaiar Petrie) sees something in the go-getting young buck in David and wants him to rise quickly through the ranks.
But rather than becoming a surrogate father figure who can help David come to terms with his past, he has no motive except to increase the firm’s bank balance and get some City boy misbehaviour under his belt with David in tow – exactly what Tait does not need in his life.
Has he buried his past, come to terms with it? Has he found a route out of the trauma by earning big bucks, expressing an alpha-male psyche on the traders’ floor?
Despite raking in the cash, owning a trophy house, trophy car and then a trophy girlfriend, and by doing so apparently blocking out his childhood, it is lurking deep inside – and emerges after he leaves his wife and two children, and falls for fellow trader Vanessa (Emily Beecham).
This well-acted and well-cast story is incredibly sad. The tragedy, as the film points out, is that one in three victims of child abuse never tell anyone else what they have experienced – while one in 20 children in the UK experience a form of sexual abuse.
If this film helps as a call to arms, educates, or even just lets one person find some solace that they are not alone, then it is praiseworthy.