Last year, two Iranian films made my top five best of the year, The Circle and No One Knows about Persian Cats, and a further two I gave honourable mentions, A Separation and The Wind Will Carry Us. About Elly (2009) is an earlier film by the director of A Separation, Asghar Farhadi. Three young middle-class couples from Tehran, with children, are spending the weekend on the shores of the Caspian Sea. Also along is Ahmad, visiting from Germany where he now lives, and recently divorced from his German wife; and Elly, the teacher of Sepideh’s young daughter, who Sepideh is hoping will make a good wife for Ahmad. Right from the start, it’s plain Sepideh is desperate for the weekend to work. When it turns out the villa they had originally booked is only available for one night – and Sepideh knew this – the group end up taking a near-derelict one on the beach. They clean it up and settle in, and so the weekend starts.
Elly, however, appears to be uncomfortable with being treated as a prospective wife for Ahmad. Though the two seem to like each other, Elly is stand-offish. When she tries to leave after the first night, Sepideh persuades her to stay, and even goes so far as to hide her bag.
The following day, the kids are playing on the beach. Nazy is making sure Arshad, the young son of Peyman and Shohreh, remains safe in the water. She goes inside to do some cleaning, and asks Elly to keep an eye out instead. But Sepideh’s daughter is having trouble with her kite, so Elly goes to help her…
Minutes later, Sepideh’s daughter runs up to the men, who are playing volleyball behind the house, screaming that Arshad is in the water. The men rush to rescue him. After some frantic searching they find the boy, floating face-down, but they manage to revive him. Then they notice that Elly is missing. Did she drown while trying to save Arshad? They hunt for her but find nothing. They call the police, but they too cannot find her. Or perhaps she left without saying anything? Was she the sort of woman who would do that?
It soon transpires that no one knows much about Elly, not even Sepideh. They contact her mother, but she didn’t even know Elly had gone to the seaside. From Elly’s mobile, they ring the number she last dialled, and get through to her brother. They tell him she has had an accident and is in hospital, and he immediately leaves Tehran for their villa.
But he’s not Elly’s brother, he’s her fiancé. As Sepideh reluctantly admits when she learns he is coming. For an affianced woman to go away to meet another prospective husband is not good. Elly’s honour is now at stake. If she did it without the knowledge of the party… While Sepideh’s husband, Amir, admits that he and his wife see nothing wrong with this behaviour, others in the party are less tolerant.
About Elly is not just a slow-burning thriller, it’s also a very clever character study of its cast. It begins innocently enough – a group of friends going away for the weekend, laughing and joking among themselves – then settles down to a friendly domestic drama… before taking an abrupt and horrifying turn. When Elly vanished, I will confess I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, for some additional twist to compound the tragedy. But About Elly is an Iranian film, and the turn it takes after Elly’s disappearance is entirely Iranian. It’s not about twisty turny plots, and how many times the director can wrongfoot the viewer, it’s about character and people and Iran. As a result, the ending is even more affecting.
The cast are uniformly excellent, with Golshifteh Farahani as Sepideh especially good. The direction throughout is also excellent, with Farhadi managing to evoke the mood of each section of the story without using any incidental music whatsoever.
On balance, I think About Elly is a better film than A Separation, even though the latter did win an Oscar; but Farhadi is certainly a director worth watching. I think I shall be tracking down some of his other films…