Finally, the second Ellen Page lesbian film is here – and after the poorly received 2016 gay rights drama Freeheld, it might be the one we've been waiting for ("we" being Ellen’s loyal army of gay fans who called it within the first five minutes of Juno). My Days of Mercy, which opened London's LGBTQ+ film festival BFI Flare last week, is a lesbian love story-cum-death row drama. Original, yes, but some reviewers have struggled to get their heads around the melding of an "issue-based film" with an "LGBT film", while others walked out early during its debut in Toronto. It might not become a big box office hit, but it is at least an intake of fresh air.
In My Days of Mercy, Ellen plays Lucy, a woman whose father is on death row for a crime he may or may not have committed, with decreasing time to be saved as the film progresses. While the clock counts down, Lucy attends demonstrations at American prisons campaigning to end the lethal injection, an issue that's obviously close to her heart. It’s at one of these protests – specifically, a demo against the execution of a mentally ill man who killed a police officer – that Lucy meets Mercy (Kare Mara), who, despite her name, is on the other side of the fence to Lucy, protesting with "The American Institute of Homicide Survivors" in favour of capital punishment.
Once audiences are done asking themselves whether it's appropriate to cruise at someone's execution, they'll quickly begin to wonder whether it's ever a good idea to start a romance across the picket line. Lucy and Mercy have wildly different ethical outlooks on the death penalty that they must overcome if their relationship can triumph. According to the film’s British scriptwriter, Joe Barton, the idea for the story came from a description he read in a true crime book about how the two real rival campaign groups kept clashing outside of prison executions, and "it just seemed like an interesting place to set a romantic drama".
The second feature from female Israeli director Tali Shalom-Ezer, whose first film was the Hebrew-language Princess, is paced near-perfectly, which is to say I didn’t get bored. The plot verges on wildly farfetched, sure, but the reveals keep you interested, as does the authenticity of the acting in depicting the couple’s relationship (something Freeheld was severely criticised for). It’s a little upsetting that the primary sex scene revolves around a rendition of a Duffy song, but the rest of My Days of Mercy swerves cringe lesbian film stereotypes.
The most notable thing about it for me, however, was that it seems to fall into a new category of storytelling in contemporary queer cinema, lifting the weight of external homophobia in order to make room for characters to explore their internal homophobia. Like Call Me By Your Name or the more underrated Beach Rats – both released last year and both concerned with gay male coming-of-age stories – My Days of Mercy asks its supporting characters to withhold judgement. Rather, it's the protagonists who must overcome their own shame.
According to Barton, this was intentional: "There's one scene with a brief homophobic confrontation between Lucy and a girl in a bar, and I guess some secrecy is implied by the fact that Mercy and Lucy have to keep going off together alone, but really we wanted to make a film that was primarily about these women in falling in love," he tells me on the phone after the film’s London premiere. "The focus is on the regular experiences of meeting someone and all of the stuff that comes with that," he adds – and, as a gay cinema-goer, I can confirm that the result is uplifting.
Barton explains that he chose lesbian protagonists because he felt a gay love story would be interesting in the context of death row activists who were Christian and conservative, and because he wanted to practice writing female characters. When I ask if he had any reservations about writing a lesbian story as a man, he tells me "no", because he wrote the script ten years ago as a writing exercise for himself. It sat in a drawer until he dug it out for his agent a while back – "about the same time Ellen and Kate were looking for a project to do together", says the scriptwriter, "and when Ellen had just come out and was actively looking for more LGBT roles to play".
Barton is optimistic about how the film will be received, given the moment we're in. "It feels like it’s a good time for gay cinema – after the huge critical love for Call Me By Your Name, people are excitedly talking about Love, Simon and 120BPM," he says, which are two other films showing at this year's BFI Flare. Personally, I'm unsure that My Days of Mercy is heart-melting and cinematic enough to mimic the success of other recent LGBT breakthrough films, but it’s nice to see a lesbian actor play a lesbian character. And, of course, to watch a film where the debate going on is not just about a gay couple’s right to exist.