Willing To Be

Empathy: ¶ August 10

Joanna ‘Teahead’ Bogus?awska is a published writer, college instructor and lecturer living in Gdynia, Poland.

“Empathy” is a 2007 BBC TV film telling the story of Jimmy Collins (Stephen Moyer), a man released from prison who discovers his unusual gift – when he touches people he can see their deepest secrets. The movie can be classified as thriller due to the main theme, but also as drama because it shows the painful reality of Jimmy’s life and his struggle to rebuild his life after coming out of jail.

While watching the film the very first thing that catches the viewer’s attention is the atmosphere present in the story. It is very gloomy and dark. The opening scenes already underscore its murky climate. Single drops of blood appearing with a hollow splash instantly draw the attention. It is obvious the film is about to tell a serious and thought-provoking story.

We meet Jimmy at the very beginning. He is getting ready to leave the prison after spending a decade behind bars. Viewers are immediately glued to the film by disturbing music and stirring images of flashbacks. They are pretty unclear, we see some shreds of a fight, bloodshed, and Jimmy’s terrified face. It’s hard to say if he was the victim of another prisoners’ attack, or if he took part in it, or perhaps he only witnessed it. When Jimmy leaves the prison he shakes hands with a guard (apparently he was a respected prisoner) and is suddenly struck by a vision of the guard beating his wife. Absolutely shocked and horrified, Jimmy looks at him, not comprehending what has just happened (at this point, the guard offers him help with really poorly chosen words “Would you like to go inside?” – Umm … no, he just got outside, after 10 years) and this is the beginning of the story.

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We learn that Jimmy has a special gift – when he touches people, he knows everything about them. Absolutely everything. He hears their thoughts, sees the world through their perspective, he learns about their deepest secrets. It is only a matter of time when Jimmy reaches the conclusion he must be going mad and tries to get help at first in a hospital, and later in a therapist’s office. Treated as freak at first, and convinced he has started losing his mind, Jimmy becomes unexpectedly confronted with his new and surprising ability as it turns out he might help the police in catching a killer. The only question is how will an ex-prisoner convince law enforcement that he is a clairvoyant and his only lead to the murder is a jacket he found.

Anyone who likes Stephen King will immediately spot similarities from “Empathy’s” plot to the story of John Smith, a psychic from King’s classic novel “The Dead Zone.” Even though John never went to prison, and his gift was discovered once he woke up from a coma, the similarities between him and Jimmy Collins are obvious. I have no idea if the inspiration was intended or if someone simply got a similar idea, but either way this is a huge compliment for BBC as there cannot be any better example to follow than Stephen King in creating great thriller stories. First of all, both characters had their lives taken away from them for many years and must have faced a completely new reality when they came back to the society. John Smith was a car crash victim after which he spent four years in a coma, Jimmy was charged with an assault on a man who had attacked his wife and due to very dramatic circumstances had his sentence prolonged. Both men lose the loves of their lives because of what happened to them. Their gift is a curse, something they have never wanted and as they struggle to put their lives into one piece again, the visions they experience make this process even more difficult.

Finally, both John and Jimmy co-operate with the police while looking for a murderer. Any fan of Stephen King will enjoy watching “Empathy” very much (and I know what I am saying) as the movie is saturated with the well-known King atmosphere of drama, thriller, despair and hope and those features only make the film more and more appealing and draw the viewers’ attention instantly.

What is more, both Jimmy and John are very solitary men. When Jimmy leaves the prison he has no place to go. He calls his ex-wife, Sarah, who does not sound too pleased with the idea of seeing him, he feels very stressed before that meeting especially about seeing his teenage daughter. They hardly know each other as she was only a toddler when Jimmy went to prison. He has no friends, apart from one, but Jimmy’s visions soon cause major problems in their friendship. It seems like the co-operation with the police, which is bumpy at first – the police officers act understandably reserved and are too proud to admit that the help of a psychic might be their only chance to find the killer. Jimmy, on the other hand, does not feel too comfortable working with the police after his traumatic past but it’s the only thing that truly makes him feel needed. And despite being terrified with sensing the victims’ fear and the morbid visions of the crimes he sees, he decides to do the right thing and help the officers. It shows that Jimmy is a righteous man, he knows his conscience will not allow him to live peacefully if he does not at least try to use his strange and unexpected (and unwanted) gift.

It is a huge relief to see that in all the despair and trauma surrounding Jimmy, his relationship with his daughter is truly heart-warming. The girl appears to be much more mature than her mother and wants to meet her father, likes spending time with him, enjoys his company. However, there is also a sense of drama in it as Jimmy, knowing exactly what might happen if he touches her, tries to limit their physical contact. One scene is truly emotional. When Jimmy takes a photograph of their family, when he touches it, he instantly sees himself and his wife playing with Amy. It shows what a great family they must have been before their lives were broken into pieces.

Jimmy’s fear of physical contact is heart-breaking. The visions he sees when touching strangers disturb him – for example he refuses at first to touch a woman he is having sex with, but once it happens, Jimmy immediately sees her husband; or he knows a teenager he bumped into on a street is a pickpocket. But it’s the ones he gets while talking with his wife that shatter him completely as he sees her making love to her new husband. The new husband has a positive attitude toward Jimmy, but Jimmy does not want to shake hands with him, a situation that causes a lot of tension between him and Sarah. It is quite hard to understand why the wife left Jimmy anyway.

Obviously, the long imprisonment and what Jimmy told her during one of her visits to prison influenced her decision regarding divorce, however, the viewer might be confused. It seemed that Sarah loved him and they truly were a good family, hence, it seems implausible that she left him so quickly. The film’s writers should have paid more attention to that plot as her decision to leave him and start a new family seems absolutely unclear and unconvincing. It feels like she was simply not loyal to her husband and it does look like Jimmy feels resentment towards her, as if she disappointed him by giving up so soon and so easily. It is clear that Jimmy took note of his wife starting a new life, without him, but since his prison cell was full of pictures of his family, the viewer might assume he has never completely come to terms with it. It is also striking that Sarah seems to be quite surprised when Jimmy tells her he’s out of prison. It seems she had no idea his sentence was finished, perhaps she was not even interested in it.

The movie, a TV production, is a modest production but it works very much in its favor. Everything surrounding Jimmy builds the atmosphere, from the fall weather, up to the ascetic house he lives in. It suits the film perfectly as it allows the viewers to focus on the plot entirely and not to be distracted by anything else. While watching ”Empathy” I had a feeling it lacked colors, everything seemed to be grayish, bluish and brownish, gloomy and up to a point depressing. But it brilliantly reflects Jimmy’s tormented soul. If the film took place in sunny landscapes of California or South of France, it would not have such powerful effect. Everything surrounding Jimmy builds this character. The rooms where he is are either totally empty, or make him uncomfortable (Sarah’s new house). It is truly overwhelming seeing him sitting alone in his kitchen, confused and trying to grasp everything that has been going on around him since he left the prison. He uses trains to move from one city to another, something that again underscores his anonymity and shows how lonely he is with his burden. One can only imagine how focused and downcast Jimmy must have felt being surrounded by people and remaining focused not to touch anyone accidentally as it might cause him another terrifying vision.

Then, shortly after his release from prison, he is once again arrested (in hostile surroundings) and it takes hours for him to be released. Sarah does not even want to listen to him, she simply refuses to help him. All this feels very unfair as we know Jimmy is a good guy, he made a terrible mistake, he paid for it and now he is alone, with no family, and has a power which makes him truly suffer, both physically and emotionally. Jimmy is deeply affected by everything he sees; it scares him, it makes him queasy, it weakens him severely. It only shows he has a lot of empathy for other people and he cannot cope easily with the misery and fear he needs to face while having his visions. He is pale and tired. I must say I am very impressed with Stephen Moyer’s performance. He is very convincing as Jimmy, his inner struggle is almost physically felt by the viewer. Nothing about his performance is exaggerated, but there is not a scene that might make you think that something might have been done better. Stephen Moyer brought to life a very credible and, despite Jimmy’s gift/curse (cross out what’s unnecessary), authentic character. It’s sheer pleasure watching him doing such a great job. He is absolutely outstanding.

There are a few things in “Empathy” that the movie lacks. First of all, Jimmy does appear to have inner turmoil, but it is unclear if it is resolved by the end of the film. And it is unclear if that was what caused the visions to appear. That is actually good. Logical and scientific explanation would totally spoil the movie. Too bad we never get any hint explaining why Jimmy began seeing all those things in the first place, nor why it started the minute he had left the prison. Also, it seems like towards the end of the movie, he begins foreseeing the future. Does it mean his special ability is expanding or has it changed?

To sum up, “Empathy” is a very good movie. It’s climatic, it follows the best thriller criteria, it has very good cast and it’s only flaw is that so far it has never been released on DVD. One might think that since Stephen Moyer has gotten so popular worldwide due to his role in “True Blood,” such films as “Empathy” ought to be released as there are many, many of Stephen’s fans who would love to get familiar with it, and, in fact, they should. It’s a really good movie. I was lucky. Polish TVP1 broadcast the film in November. What a treat!

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