The Possibilities are Endless review: grace after tragedy

The story of Edwyn Collin's return and recovery after stroke is one of the unexpected surprises of the season

The Possibilities Are Endless
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Director: James Hall, Edward Lovelace
Cert: 12A
Genre: Documentary
Starring: Edwyn Collins, Edward Lovelace
Running Time: 1 hr 23 mins

It is nearly a decade since Edwyn Collins, one of the great New Wave romantics, suffered a severely debilitating stroke. His rehabilitation has been lengthy, trying and incomplete, but the great man is back at the microphone. Assisted by his stubbornly loyal wife Grace Maxwell, Collins looks set to again take his deserved place among the cultural furniture.

What might a documentary on the trauma look like, if composed in the style of Collins’s influential band Orange Juice? It would be tender, wry and – acknowledging the Velvet Underground influence – just a little bit angular. There is some of that going on here.

In a very touching aside, Collins’s son William acts out a few scenes that rhyme with the meeting between Grace and Edwyn some 20 years earlier. (This being Glasgow, the initial encounter is in a chip shop.) The banter between the couple strays into mock aggression and occasionally encounters unhappy truths. “I miss him – the old Edwin,” Grace says. “There is no point denying that.”

For much of its duration, however, The Possibilities are Endless takes an oblique, experimental approach to the material that – to stretch post-punk allusions beyond breaking point – is more Cabaret Voltaire than Orange Juice. Shot in expansive widescreen, James Hall and Edward Lovelace's picture begins with happy shots of a healthy Edwin on the Conan O'Brien show and then plunges us into muggy, confused landscapes accompanied by disconnected monologues from the subject.


There is much superficial beauty here. Shooting around Helmsdale, a highland town much loved by Edwyn, the film-makers happen upon leaping sheep, pounding waves and vast unpopulated meadows. It would be offensive to suggest that any cinematic conceit could convey the experience of fighting oneself through the cognitive fog that follows a cerebral haemorrhage. But the visuals do, at least, work as an effective metaphor for that struggle.

The film-makers, perhaps, overcook things when they introduce shots of a submerged body to represent Edwyn’s isolated state. We were doing quite nicely. There was no need to rub against explicit representation.

At any rate, the apparently random arrangement of quotes gradually forms itself into a narrative of fear, confusion and determination. Poignantly, we learn that, immediately after the stroke, Collins could only manage a few words and phrases. One of them was “Grace”. Another was “the possibilities are endless.”

If such dialogue emerged in a disease-of-the-week TV movie any sane viewer would dismiss it as sentimental and nauseatingly “inspirational”. Of course, as properly unpretentious Scots, our heroes are alive to the comic potential. While appreciating the affection, Grace rather wished he could find another syllable to repeat endlessly. She is similarly dry and honest throughout, while her husband strives to regain his rockabilly cheek.

While we get to grips with Collins’s mental befuddlement, the directors drop in shots of early Orange Juice to demonstrate the journey taken and give some impression of his efforts to reorder memory.

If the directors’ off-centre technique has a flaw it is that we don’t get much practical information on the mechanics of rehabilitation and recuperation.

There is some interesting material on how Edwyn’s efforts at pencil drawing allowed him to rediscover the logic of the visual world. Grace demonstrates how, if she strums the guitar, her husband is just about capable of working the fret board. But the film is more concerned with charting the emotional journey than detailing treatments and strategies.

As such, it must be acknowledged as one of the most delightful and unexpected surprises of the season. There certainly nothing else much like it in cinemas.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist