Helen Mirren (far right) plays one of the seven-year-olds in Blue Remembered Hills
  • Helen Mirren (far right) plays one of the seven-year-olds in Blue Remembered Hills.

If you’re going to the movies this evening and looking for something different, I recommend I Declare War, a Canadian feature that ends its weeklong run tonight at Facets Cinematheque. As I wrote in my capsule review, the movie—about preteens playing an elaborate and increasingly brutal game of capture the flag—is most commendable for its ambiguity. It’s never clear whether screenwriter Jason Lapeyre set out to write an allegory about war or the brutality of childhood bullying. But rather than coming off as vague, the movie feels eerily unstable—an appropriate emotion to evoke in depicting both warfare and early adolescence. Moreover the game with real-world consequences is an ever-fruitful premise, as demonstrated by a number of films ranging from Last Year at Marienbad to the recent genre hit The Purge. Maybe it’s because the premise inspires us to make connections between our behavior as children and our behavior as adults, which most people prefer to think of as separate entities.

The great thing about Blue Remembered Hills, a 1979 British teleplay written by the great Dennis Potter (Pennies From Heaven, The Singing Detective), is that it confronts this notion head-on. Like I Declare War, it takes place in the woods over the course of an afternoon as a group of children torment each other under the pretense of play. Its major innovation is that the seven-year-old characters are all played by adults—among them, Helen Mirren—so we recognize in their actions the seeds of adult cruelty. When Mirren’s character boasts of kissing multiple boys, for instance, we can see a future of promiscuity or at least sexually manipulative behavior. When other characters callously shift their allegiances from one friend to another—typically as a result of someone losing a fight—we see social conformism in its most primitive state.

“Our culture has long since acknowledged that childhood is not transparent with innocence,” Potter wrote in an introduction to the published script of Hills, “and that its apparent simplicities are but the opacities of the very anxieties and aggressions which we occasionally seek to evade by means of a misplaced nostalgia for those ‘blue remembered hills’ of [A.E.] Housman’s aching little verse.” Much of Potter’s writing exudes disgust for nostalgia. His famous device (which recurs in several of his teleplays) of having actors lip-sync to old recordings illustrates poignantly the fundamental disconnect between adult life and memories of the past. It’s worth noting that Hills takes place in 1943, when Potter himself was seven years old. Certain details feel so precise that they must have been drawn from the author’s ever-troubled memories.

You can find a DVD of Blue Remembered Hills in the Chicago Public Library’s collection, and you can also watch it on YouTube.