I Start Counting (1969)

5Wynne (Jenny Agutter) is a precocious young woman whose personality reflects someone far older than her mere fifteen years. The adopted daughter of a working-class family, she is deeply in love with George (Bryan Marshall), her much older adoptive brother, whose mysterious attitude makes him even more irresistible to Wynne, who finds herself taken by his unconventional charms. A series of coincidences and the fact that young women are going missing and eventually turning up dead starts to concern the protagonist, who begins to suspect that her brother may be behind these murders, with gradual clues putting the reasonable suspicion in her mind – yet, she can’t abandon her intense adoration for him, and she does everything she can to prove to herself that he isn’t the serial killer, not only because she doesn’t want to be associated with someone capable of such heinous actions, but also because his innocence would mean a higher chance of him surrendering himself to Wynne, who believes that with the right persuasion, she will be able to be with her brother, especially after she realizes that due to their non-traditional family dynamic, there is nothing legally preventing them from being together – but the moral issues it brings are ignored by the protagonist, who is gradually growing into her womanhood, albeit in a very unconventional way, and she scrambles to prove her suspicions wrong, for the sake of protecting her foster brother and hopefully convicing him that they should be together, regardless of how this goes against all normative standards.

Based solely on the premise, I Start Counting is clearly not the kind of film that intends to entertain the viewer, with some even possibly taking umbrage in the storyline, which is certainly not a particularly pleasant one. Based on the novel of the same title by Audrey Erskine Lindop, the film adaptation doesn’t deviate from focusing on the controversial themes evoked in the source material, with director David Greene going to great lengths to explore the despair embedded in this story, as well as investigating the themes of desire and maturity, without ever plunging this film in moral ambiguity, and where the plot is realized in a complex, mannered way, rather than being exploitative. This all converges into one of the most heartwrenching coming-of-age films of the period in which it was produced, a daring psychological thriller that is as moving as it is terrifying. Frequently making use of a kind of narrative sincerity often missing from this kind of hard-hitting drama, I Start Counting is an intricate exploration of a young woman’s search for meaning, and the various obstacles she encounters along the way – whether tangible challenges that put her in the path of peril or more psychological quandaries that she faces as she grows into adulthood, all of which she has to endure while still trying to remain optimistic, holding onto the last fragments of her childhood, especially when this becomes increasingly difficult when the reality of her situation is not anything someone of her age should ever have to encounter, a result of her immense curiosity and inability to heed the innumerable warnings she is given by those who try to compel her to ignore her primal urges.

I Start Counting begins and ends with the incredible work done by the young Jenny Agutter, who made an enormous impact with her astounding work in Walkabout, which launched a fascinating career that saw her occupying roles in an assortment of mainstream and cult classics. However, this performance in particular stands out, especially considering how she was able to give such a compelling lead performance at such a young age. This is certainly not a role that could have been easy to play – taking on the part of a teenager who is coming into her adulthood, and as a response begins to have quite visceral cravings for an older member of her family is not one that could be effectively portrayed without becoming exploitative, particularly because the actress was around the same age as the character she was playing, making it extremely important that Greene conveyed this story without putting the young performer in any compromising or inappropriate position. The strength underlying this performance all comes from Agutter’s dynamic interpretation of the character – she surrenders herself fully to the story, taking on the role with a sincerity not commonly found in young actors like her. Contrasted with the challenging subject matter, and the fact that she rises above it, commanding every frame by showing both her firm resilience and heartwrenching vulnerabilities, it’s hardly surprising that what she was able to give one of the most profoundly moving performances ever given by a young actor. Her performance is a masterful example of both intrepid boldness and quiet subtlety – whether it be in the climactic conflict where she is enveloped by fear, or in the many moments of introspection, such as the poignant prayer scene where she begs for guidance while atoning for the presumed sins of the man she loves, Agutter is extraordinary, and while the approach Greene took to the film was certainly very good, it most likely would not have been as powerful as it was, as everything about it ultimately goes back to her spellbinding performance.

The film focuses on the unsettling devotion Wynne feels towards her brother very well, inciting an atmosphere of outright despair, and drawing on the taboo subject matter without crossing any moral boundaries. Greene keeps everything relatively contained, and crafts an unconventional coming of age story about a young woman learning about the world, albeit from a very different perspective than we normally see in literature. However, I Start Counting does take the basic format of these kinds of stories and uses it in a way that feels unique, so it never quite deviates from a familiar formula, only differing in how it perceives certain themes. The story primarily concerns the main character undergoing a series of lessons, gaining an education in many different facets of life. As a teenager, her strict Catholic high school plays a pivotal part in her development, often being the guiding force from which she initially draws inspiration, and later rebels against, as a result of her realizing the flaws in the messages they have been conveying. The most important teacher at that school is actually Wynne’s best friend, who enlightens her on the matters of desire, apparently having had enough experience to make her an expert (one of the film’s most cathartic elements is her insistence that she has been around enough to be a permanent source of information, despite very clearly being just as unversed in the matters of love as her friend). In the process of gaining this education in matters of desire, Wynne also experiences an emotional development that is far more important, as it causes her to not only see the world differently but perceive her own mindset, and the slow realization that her actions do have consequences – yet, she struggles to control her urges, knowing full well that they could lead her towards great danger if she’s not careful.

I Start Counting is an indictment on the darker depths of childhood curiosity, especially in the ambiguous space between adolescence and adulthood, which is the cause of much confusion to many of us at that age. The film focuses on the intersections between fear and desire and foregrounds it with an undercurrent of the role played by the concept of faith, whether in a deity or in something more tangible. Greene combines a touching coming-of-age narrative with intense traits of the psychological thriller, blending conventions in quite an extraordinary way. The rurality of the story makes I Start Counting even more fascinating, as it seems to blend kitchen-sink realism with small-town horror, both cinematic movements at their peak during this time, particular in Great Britain. Combining unhinged terror with an offbeat story of growing up and the social expectations surrounding girls of Wynne’s age, are echoed commonly in later films, but appears to be most profound here. The macabre storyline, which Greene never neglects to explore fully, contrasts with the elegant approach to the uncertainty of growing up and how maturing can be a terrifying ordeal on its own, even without the omnipotence of a sinister serial killer prying on the first available victim showing the visceral urges he craves. Through a harrowing story of a young woman trying to understand the depths of her desire and the various social and emotional machinations of the world around her, the film is a powerful demonstration of the perils that await us after our childhood naivete has eroded. The intertwining relationship between fear and desire, and how they aren’t all that different in terms of how we work through them, are pivotal to this film, and contribute to the haunting atmosphere, which often complements the deep sense of longing that persists throughout the film. Poignant, harrowing and sincere, I Start Counting is an anomaly of a film – thematically similar to an overwrought after-school special, but executed like the most disconcerting psychological thriller, David Green has made an unforgettable drama that asks the difficult questions, and leaves it up to us to answer them based on our own individual perspectives.



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