New Film Hurt By Paradise Is a Lyrical Love Letter to London

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Hurt By Paradise Greta Bellamacina Robert Montgomery
Hurt By Paradise, 2019(Film still)

“We wanted to make a love story with two women at its heart,” explains filmmaker and poet Greta Bellamacina of her acclaimed feature Hurt By Paradise

In the spellbinding new film, Hurt By Paradise Greta Bellamacina – who also directs the feature – plays Celeste, a young writer and single mother for whom poetry is more than a passion – it is a lifeline.

Abandoned by her father at the age of five, Celeste and her sister are raised by her wizened mother, whose hard veneer allows Celeste to maintain a certain tenderness as she floats through the world. Bellamacina – who has written poetry herself – traces the threads of rejection that intertwine through Celeste’s life as she tries to publish her first book of poetry and find her absent father after more than 20 years at the same time.

“I think we are always trying to find our place and worth in the world,” Bellamacina tells AnOther. “This is especially so when you are first starting out. Celeste can’t really find a place in the world for herself. She thinks she’s looking for her father but she is really just looking for her voice, which she finds in her poetry, and friendship, which she finds in Stella.”

Stella (Sadie Brown), Celeste’s neighbour and friend, is a middle-aged failed actress who frequently babysits Celeste’s son. We soon learn of the light in Stella’s private life, nightly communiqué with a man she has never met, who has engaged her in intimate online conversations for the past year.

Bellamacina worked with a majority female cast and crew to create an original story of womanhood. She explains: “I wanted to explore female dynamics that didn’t feel cliched, or superficial. We wanted to make a love story with two women at its heart – unlikely friends and their simple love for each other, where nothing really happens but life.”

Bellamacina partnered with her husband Robert Montgomery, who produced the film with just £75,000. “Because the film was so low budget we all worked in a really collaborative way,” Bellamacina says. “The beauty of working with the person you love is that you come from a similar place in the world. You want the world to be filled with enough light and shade that you feel you can both exist.”

Montgomery adds, “I think that search for the magical in the everyday characterises a lot of the art we both make. We often talk about that as our main driving force – to uncover the sacred in the mundane.”

Filmed on location in Camden, Hurt By Paradise proffers lingering glimpses of London through a romantic lens, showing the city through the soft-focus gaze of a poet’s heart and soul. The images are exquisitely paired with willowy threads of verse penned by Bellamacina drawn from Tomorrow’s Woman (Andrews McMeel), her latest collection of poetry. 

“I wanted to make a film where poetry exists in the modern world, a sort of dreamlike headspace of Celeste’s, which is almost more real to her than the world around her,” Bellamacina says. 

London becomes the perfect milieu for Celeste’s verse, its streets and buildings transformed into a mood map of her inner state. “Everything feels far away and slightly out of touch,” Bellamacina says. “We wanted to create the lonely wandering feeling you sometimes get in a big city, where you are only left with your own thoughts and poetry.”

Released on September 18, Hurt By Paradise stormed the UK film festivals last year, where it was nominated for the Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature Film at the Edinburgh Film Festival and for Best UK Feature Film at Raindance. The film also features a strong cast of British character actors in supporting roles including Jaime Winstone (Kidulthood), Camilla Rutherford (The Phantom Thread), Veronica Clifford (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) and Nicholas Rowe (Young Sherlock).

Despite the overwhelming femaleness of the film, men play an important role, their presence and absence forming a pattern of desires unfulfilled. “[Celeste and Stella] start out looking for these very abstract male figures, who they both idolise, and then they end up realising that their own friendship is much more important. It was very much a dagger to the idea that male acceptance was what they needed,” Bellamacina says.

Montgomery adds, “A friend who saw the film early on at the Edinburgh Film Festival rang me up and he said, ‘Robert you realise there’s not a single male character in this film who is not a completely arrogant twat.’ I said, ‘Yes I know, and I think that’s exactly what Greta and Sadie intended.’ And I really love that about the film.”

Hurt By Paradise is screening at Genesis in Mile End, London, on September 30, 2020.