Orlando von Einsiedel is the British filmmaker who was Oscar nominated for his 2014 documentary Virunga, on the ferocious battle raging between poachers and rangers within a Congolese national park; he went on to win last year's Best Documentary Short prize for The White Helmets, his study of the heroic Syrian medics. Von Einsiedel's new doc Evelyn marks both a homecoming, and perhaps an attempt to work out exactly why he's spent the last decade throwing himself, seemingly without a second thought, into the middle of vicious armed conflict. It is, in short, a personal film, one that frequently finds von Einsiedel front and centre, often in or close to tears, as he outlines the contours of a walking trip his family undertook through the Scottish Highlands and the Peak District with the aim of coming to terms with the suicide of his younger brother Evelyn, a name barely spoken within his clan in the years since the tragedy. Evelyn was himself a keen walker, we learn, but he was also a schizophrenic who, after several unsuccessful attempts, took his own life in 2005, aged 22: his teenage self can be glimpsed during the opening credits, compiling a video diary that doubles as a whirlwind tour of the von Einsiedels' boho household. Thereafter, he becomes an informing absence, as we sense this one trip becoming a means of having all those conversations the filmmaker, his parents, and his siblings ducked having at the time - a chance to get everything out in the open. By a miracle of Mother Nature, the landscape (the rocky, bumpy, uneven ground, the skies that fall somewhere between stormy and melancholy) soon comes to mirror the emotional landscape.
A few caveats, and possibly trigger warnings, may be in order. When I say Evelyn is personal, it is deeply personal from its very first scene, which finds the filmmaker taking delayed delivery of his brother's suicide note. Had he made it about any family other than his own, von Einsiedel would almost certainly have been accused of morbid prying. As a film about a British family (albeit a family with Germanic heritage, hence its preponderance of weird and wonderful names), Evelyn also brushes against issues of class and privilege: we are forever aware that not every bereaved family has the resources to exorcise their traumas on a walking trip, get it filmed and then exhibited in cinemas. Yet any sense that this awayday was of greater benefit for them than it will be for us is very quickly overcome by the realisation von Einsiedel is actively diagnosing that emotional aloofness commonly seen in the British upper classes, and which may not be entirely healthy for anybody, the vulnerable most of all. (It is a bad case of that stiff upper lip the class system has sought to frame as unconditionally heroic.) The director himself, who presents among the more approachable scions of this softly spoken tribe, is described as "emotionally stunted" by sister Gwendolyn, although this looks increasingly like a facade maintained by a big brother who felt pressured into leading the way out of the dark. Something more needling becomes apparent in a stretch that witnesses dad Andreas - who'd remarried several years before Evelyn's death - stomping brusquely over Gwen's thoughts and feelings during the yomp through the Peak District. (I hesitate to say it, but we've seen variations on this behaviour in other fields recently. Catastrophic referendum result? No point analysing it, just roll up your sleeves and crack on with pushing it through.)
The fascination exerted by the film lies in watching a family being drawn out of their usual bubble; it stands as poignant proof of the wisdom that simply getting out of the house can liberate us from our grief. The walk brings the von Einsiedels into contact with fellow travellers, from different backgrounds, many of whom are mourning losses of their own. A conversation with an ice cream man serves as evidence that the director's reserve is beginning, at last, to melt; falling into step with Evelyn's skater chums allows the film to build a community of the bereaved, capable of sharing the burden such a crushing loss must represent. Thoughtful image and sound choices tap the emotion sitting close to the film's surface. Though there is the occasional drone shot, equated to the walkers' belief that Evelyn is now watching over them, we're generally only a step or two ahead of this party at the roadside, looking back as they've previously refused to do, and the walks are very sensitively miked, so that we can hear every last snuffle, murmured regret or declaration of love. It's a film that stresses the importance of talking by trying very hard to hear every word of what's being said - however difficult these words may be to hear, or to say. We are brought unusually close to the film's subjects, then - and if ever their discussions get too much, too painful, too tragic to consider, there are always those rolling hills behind them to consider, a reminder of what will be there long after the rest of us have disappeared. That closeness makes this family's grief, and their eventual breakthroughs more tangible, while bringing a personality previously content to hide behind the camera into far sharper focus. Von Einsiedel, more German than perhaps he realises, here emerges as a capital-R Romantic, setting out into nature to confront death head-on.
Evelyn screens on Thu 11 (Curzon Mayfair, 6.15pm), Fri 12 (NFT3, 6.20pm) and Sun 14 (BFI Studio, 6.15pm).