We Reach for the Firmament – thoughts on the film Third Star

“[Third] star to the right and straight on till morning.” from Peter Pan

Being a big fan of BBC’s Sherlock, I made a point to see Third Star, a film by Hattie Dalton, on the one night it was playing in DC. Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch plays James, the central character in this beautiful, quirky drama.
(Be forewarned, this post contains major plot spoilers!)

I found the opening moments mesmerizing. One watches whirling bits of fibre, green and spun gold,  disoriented by a tilting camera and blurry ground. In time this becomes identifiable as flying grass hurled by a spinning weed trimmer.  As the camera pulls back  the edge of a gravestone comes into focus. Benedict’s beautiful baritone tells us it is his birthday, and he knows he won’t live to see the another.

This tiny scene, a  minute or so, and from a worms-eye view, contains so much: fresh green blades are lopped off and sent spinning in to the cosmos, making a swirling cloud. The plant fibre seems to go golden as soon as its mixed with air, a fragrant honeyed cloud. I can smell the sweet hay.

How common is this, mowing the lawn: the relentless grass, abruptly decapitated, never hesitates to grow toward the light. Grow, be cut down. Grow, be cut free. Grow. Be severed from your roots, and fly.

benedict as james
Benedict Cumberbatch in Third Star

James  sets off with his childhood friends on a journey to his favorite place, Barfundal Bay on the coast of Wales. They’ve built a cart to act as wheelchair: part bicycle, part sled, and so off they go, full of boyish glee and irreverence.

The further they travel, the more their habitual, patterned communication falls away. In time, conversations chafe, rub raw, and truths are spoken. Beards grow, scowls too. Bitterness, critique (unrequested), disappointment are revealed.

Objects are lost, damaged, cast aside. What is thought to be important changes. Something is getting refined, sharpened. They are resourceful, stubborn, determined. Loyal. James must get to his bay, the place he sees every night in his dreams, and more and more in his morphine visions.

They come to a channel crossing, and the ferryman is an odd bloke: gruff, weathered, and wearing eye makeup. He keeps asking them “single or return? single or return?”  Then he insists on charging for the cart. “Single, or return for the cart?” he asks, and you wonder if he’s daft.

You don’t yet know that the cart will be dashed on the rocks. But by now you may be beginning to suspect that James will not make the return trip.


That whirling opening scene has all the earmarks of a powerful abstract painting: a pattern and an energy that is vaguely familiar but unplaceable; a portrait of the energy, not of the thing.

While the mind is searching the imagery for ‘What is it? What is it?” grasping for a label, a ground, the soul speeds up, drinking in more and more data. When ‘ground’ is finally found, it is the grave.

As a painter, I watched this film and noticed scene after scene composed with great care, shining with beauty, and unlike a fixed canvas, arising, cresting and falling away like waves, supported by the music and moving the story forward, a mirror of the character’s quest. In my admiration I quailed: How can a meer canvas hope to achieve this vivid purpose?

Joan Mitchell PaintingBut of course, the canvas endures, and the filmic moment dissolves like a soap bubble into the next idea, and the next, carrying you onward whether you wish to pause and contemplate or not. The painting will hold an energy in apparent stillness, for a while, decades, centenia perhaps.

Could I make that whirling gold grass, frenzied, hopeful, chaotic, gruesome, inevitable. On a canvas? Could I make you feel the vibrating universe in it ? I have seen paintings that approach this. Joan Mitchell comes to mind.

But what of the ferryman, the fool who only seems wise in retrospect?  Could a painter show for who he is? Certainly the artist could leave hints about the Ferryman, pointers to his mythic role. Yet nothing competes with film for this purpose: the foreshadow, clever joke perpetrated by the storyteller on us unsuspecting viewers.

I found so many painterly moments in this film: the four friends cresting a hill, bright light before them dissolving the hard edges of their forms; lighting fireworks which then consume their tent; the cart lying dashed on the rocks in the surf; James lying on the forest floor in dappled light.


One could say his is a youthful romantic death, to sink beneath the slate colored waves in his beloved place. Yet James does not romanticize his longing to be enfolded in the sea. He speaks of the pain of salt water in his lungs without illusion.

His friends protest, they cannot allow him to do this. “I promised your mother!” one pleads with him. A difficult night ensues, when he runs out of morphine and they witness his raw experience When the morning comes, after this night when they have cried together, they honor his intention to determine his own death.

Despite his courage, James tells his friend Miles, who has swum out with him, “I’d rather not be alone.” Miles sinks down with him,  holds him,  holds his eyes, while he drowns.
What love. What profound love. This was all I could think.

As they drew his body back up onto the beach, I realized I was willing James to breathe again, to gag and spit sea water and laugh, and make all his friends smile and shake with relief. There’s the grass in me, reaching for the sun.

Once upon a time I was a young traveler in Scotland, who wandered alone from sacred site to standing stone, troubled, lonely and brimming with life. One day I visited the clifftops at Yesneby, on Orkney, where I danced on the cliff’s edge, heedless of the warning signs. I was reckless, half suicidal. In that moment I didn’t care if the rock gave way beneath me, or even if I fell. The wind was so strong it felt like it was holding me up, pushing back.

Some time later I realized that wild girl wasn’t trying to destroy herself. She wanted to fly. Not die, but soar.


green grassStubborn grass; it grows toward the sun, despite its fate to be beheaded, scythed, severed and stunted. Reach, grow, be cut down. Grow, stretch toward the sun, and the blade will come again, and again.

In the sparkling green of the forest, sun prickling through overhead, James rests his head back, staring up. Rising into the firmament. Wanting to fly.

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