WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN - Tilda Swinton as Eva

Mummy’s little monster…

Tilda Swinton delivers one of the finest performances of her career as an American woman grappling with grief and guilt in the aftermath of a terrible crime committed by her teenage son in We Need To Talk About Kevin, director Lynne Ramsay’s compelling screen version of Lionel Shriver’s 2003 bestseller.

It’s a good job she’s at the top of her game because Ramsay has jettisoned the narrative device that gave the book’s readers access to the protagonist’s inner thoughts – the series of letters Eva Khatchadourian writes to husband Franklin (played in the film by John C Reilly). With no voiceovers in their stead and minimal dialogue, Swinton’s face and body have to convey Eva’s turbulent emotions on their own. And this they do, amply. Swinton’s Eva, once a bohemian free spirit brimming with acerbic intelligence, looks as though she’s been flayed raw by tragedy.

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN - Tilda Swinton as Eva & JOHN C REILLY AS FRANKLIN

Even so, for all Swinton’s brilliance, if you haven’t read the book, the early sections of the film will probably be bewildering, a fractured mosaic made up of Eva’s attempts to rebuild her life amid a hostile local community intercut with memories of her barbed and combative relationship with her son – played successively by Rocky Duer (fractious toddler Kevin), Jasper Newell (defiant 6-8-year-old Kevin) and Ezra Miller (snide, sardonic teenage Kevin).

Yet if the story is hard to unpick, Ramsay, making her first film since 2001’s Morvern Callar, offers clues and cues to guide the viewer by means of her film’s meticulously controlled sound and colour design.

We Need to Talk About Kevin - Tilda Swinton

Haunted and taunted.

Eva, understandably, is haunted by the colour red. Haunted and taunted. The film’s opening scene shows her in a state of ecstatic abandon amidst a roiling mass of bodies during the huge, messy tomato fight at the Tomatina festival in Buñol, near Valencia in Spain – revelling in her freedom as a successful travel writer. Later on, we find her in a supermarket aisle, pinned against shelves of Campbell’s tomato soup and shunning human contact.

We only learn gradually, however, what it is that has brought her to this state. Yet although the circumstances eventually become clear, what caused them continues to elude Eva. Is she somehow to blame for her son’s deeds? Or is the boy simply a bad seed? Is Kevin the product of nature or nurture? Born evil or brought up badly, despite all the material comforts of well-heeled Connecticut suburbia and the unstinting love of a doting dad? Does it all come down to post-natal depression? To Eva’s failure to bond with her son? The questions multiply. Like Shriver’s book, Ramsay’s chilling and thought-provoking film doesn’t offer any easy answers.

On general release from Friday 21st October