Review by Rich Cline | 4/5

dir-scr Alex Garland
prd Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich
with Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu, Gayle Rankin, Sarah Twomey, Zak Rothera-Oxley, Sonoya Mizuno
release US 20.May.22,
UK 1.Jun.22
22/UK A24 1h40

buckley kinnear essiedu

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As horror seeps into and engulfs this drama, writer-director Alex Garland gleefully uses symbolism to torment both the central character and the audience with ideas about toxic masculinity. Beneath its grotesque surfaces, this is an unblinking and deeply felt exploration of grief and guilt through specifically female eyes. Rarely off-screen, the excellent Jessie Buckley takes us on this journey with an earthy sense of bewilderment and painfully raw emotions.
After the suicide of her husband (Essiedu) in London, Harper (Buckley) needs a break. So she rents an Elizabethan country house and plans to spend two weeks getting her thoughts under control. Fat chance. Landlord Geoffrey (Kinnear) is a quirky man who encourages her to relax, which is the same advice she gets from her friend Riley (Rankin) on FaceTime calls. Then on her first walk in the woods, she has a bewildering encounter with a local. This event escalates with each villager she meets (also played by Kinnear), spiralling into a folk horror nightmare.
Surreal touches are deliberately distracting, while the metaphorical narrative leaves interpretation to the viewer. Garland ambitiously deploys elemental angles everywhere, inventively turning a dark emotional drama literally inside out for maximum effect. Gorgeously shot by Rob Hardy as if it exists in Harper's imagination, the film features saturated colours that evoke feelings that are as intense as the frankly bonkers effects, which are an inventive mix of makeup, on-set magic and obvious digital trickery. And since the script so carefully excavates Harper's complex mental state, we are pulled right down the rabbit hole with her.

Buckley's performance is simply astonishing, remaining subtle and textured even when Harper is overwhelmed by a series of mind-boggling reactions and feelings. What we discover about her isn't always positive, and there are moments when Harper almost seems to deserve what's happening to her, which of course echoes her mindset in her most vulnerable moments. Opposite her Kinnear has a lot of fun as the rather too-helpful Geoffrey, and then in his other roles reveals a range of violent attitudes and micro-aggressions that are downright sinister.

While the climactic scene of grotesque grisliness is difficult to watch, Garland is careful to underscore everything with easy-to-recognise conflicted emotions. Revealed through dreamy flashbacks, Harper's grief and guilt create an unpredictable brew, so her psychological odyssey sends her into situations that are downright terrifying. Garland directs with a superb sense of unpredictability, leaning into the more dreamlike story elements while dragging the audience into increasingly horrific nastiness. This is of course entertaining on the surface. But the themes make it haunting.

cert 18 themes, language, violence 16.May.22

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© 2022 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall