In Review

Film review: Playground 

Powerful Belgian film about a child starting at a new school

Playground “captures exactly what it feels like to be seven years old and starting a new school, which is another way of saying it’s the most panic-attack-inducing film of the year”, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. Many of the events it depicts are “fairly ordinary”; the Belgian film’s power lies in Maya Vanderbeque’s “heart-lurchingly plausible” central performance as Nora, a troubled new pupil who must learn to negotiate school life. 

Vanderbeque acts with “the kind of pristine psychological integrity that would make Daniel Day-Lewis drop his cobbling kit”, and director Laura Wandel capitalises on this by making the film mainly from the child’s point of view – so that older pupils “loom” up before her, grown-ups are little more than “disembodied legs”, and the din of the schoolyard resembles that of a “war zone”. Owing to a “brief, appropriately frightening moment of child-on-child violence”, Playground has a 15 rating, which is a pity as younger audiences would surely benefit from watching “such a striking depiction of pre-teen life”. 

“Sometimes cinema is at its most potent and engrossing when it’s stripped down to the essentials,” said Wendy Ide in The Observer. This “uncomfortably powerful” film is a case in point: at little over an hour in length, with lithe, handheld camerawork and no score, it takes a “piercingly insightful” look at the “semi-feral pack dynamic of childhood”, without labouring the point. 

The “Hobbesian, tooth-and-nail universe of the playground” has seldom been portrayed “so indelibly”, said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times. Occasionally, Nora turns to adults for help, but the film shows she’s on her own; as its French title (Un Monde) suggests, school is “a world unto itself. A beautiful film.” 

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