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Review by Rich Cline |
dir Neil Marshall
scr Neil Marshall, Charlotte Kirk, Edward Evers-Swindell
prd Daniel-Konrad Cooper, Michael Marks, Steffen Wild, Esther Turan
with Charlotte Kirk, Steven Waddington, Sean Pertwee, Joe Anderson, Suzanne Magowan, Ian Whyte, Callum Goulden, Sarah Lambie, Leon Ockenden, Emma Campbell-Jones, Mark Ryan, Bill Fellows
release UK/US 14.May.21
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Inspired by real events, this overlong British period thriller turns a serious story into a series of scary movie cliches. Filmmaker Neil Marshall is adept at atmospherics, creating intense dread with the full toolbox of cheap tricks. So the production is eye-catching despite the cheesy sets and costumes. But there's simply no nuance in what could have been a genuinely unsettling exploration of the true horrors of sexism.
In 1665 England, witchfinders are ruthlessly hunting the demonic people they hold responsible for the mass deaths caused by the plague. On a rural farm with a new baby, Grace (Kirk) has lost her loving husband Joseph (Anderson), and now landlord Pendleton (Waddington) is demanding the rent be paid in sexual favours. When she rejects him, he starts rumours that she's a witch, which stirs up the easily led plague-masked villagers to arrest and torture her. To add pressure on Grace, Pendleton calls in witchfinder Moorcroft (Pertwee), whose methods are exponentially more horrifying.
Marshall peppers the film with gauzy, male-gazey flashbacks to Grace's happy life with Joseph, often intermingled with nightmares about his death. There are also glimpses of Grace's previous encounter with Moorcroft, who burnt her mother (Campbell-Jones) alive. Otherwise, it's a flurry of trite dialog, loud noises, grotesque violence and ghoulish effects, plus a flurry of freaky dream sequences in which she's terrorised by the devil himself (Whyte). Alas, it's never more than a bad B-movie.
Kirk struggles to make much of the over-serious Grace, almost comically styled like a present-day supermodel with full-glam makeup and impeccably tousled extensions. Even so, Kirk finds some steeliness in Grace's response to the violent injustice heaped upon her, holding the audience's sympathy. Indeed, it's almost inspiring to see her refuse to give her tormenters the confession they want, then turn the tables on them. Opposite her, Waddington sneers skilfully as the lascivious Pendleton, while Pertwee delivers his menacing dialog with a throaty whisper.
The idea that 17th century women had no power is badly undermined by Marshall's fetishistic depiction of Grace (complete with soft-porn dreams that focus on her naked body). This also weakens the echoes of things like modern-day torture or braying mobs that believe fake news. In this sense, the film has something pointed to say about the human capacity for cruelty. And it definitely has some camp value, especially in the over-the-top finale. But it's far too simplistic to be scary, unsettling or a guilty pleasure.
R E A D E R R E V I E W SStill waiting for your comments ... don't be shy.
© 2021 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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