Lewis and Riseborough feature as Protestant minister Balor and his browbeaten, downtrodden wife, Aislin – the latter’s accent flitting around somewhere over the North Sea on the way to Scandinavia. During dark, moody opening moments a circular shot encompasses a man staring into a fire while upstairs a similar flourish circles a bed where a woman is in childbirth. Wind howls outside, rain hammers windows, footsteps echo on floorboards and a quill pen scratches on paper. Initially rich visual and aural elements soon evaporate. Having lost their child, the couple avoid one another until their first interaction, a melodramatic, vitriolic confrontation during which Balor hurls insults at his wife: “You are a failed mother, a failed woman!” This galling lack of compassion is symptomatic of a character whose singular dimension – an obsessive divine mania – is tiresomely one-note. He is a God-fearing man who spends the film’s duration putting the fear of God into those around him.
A bottle of whiskey, initially out of focus as he prepares a crucial sermon, comes to play a predictably devastating role as Balor fails to practice that which he preaches. Coming considerably too early in proceedings this first violent encounter is interrupted by the arrival of Fionn (Anderson), a young Glaswegian ne’er-do-well banished to the island to atone for his sins. An unwelcome and unwanted house guest, Fionn finds himself stranded on an isle deserted due to the closure of its only source of employment, a mine. With an exaggerated accent, rolled r’s and staccato delivery of every single consonant, Balor barks orders at his charge who is put to work on the house and surrounding lands. Word from on high spurs the minister into dismantling his church and transporting it to the mainland.
The reasons for doing this are left entirely unexplained but his brief aquatic sojourn allows for some respite at the homestead. A predictable rapprochement occurs, but a drug trip sequence after the eating of some mind-bending mushrooms – the dour palette flipped to radioactively vibrant levels – is ludicrous and cuts any sense of emotional closeness. Far from being the slow-building, eerie and distantly ominous spectacle that its title would suggest, this debut feature (after McFarlane’s 2008 doc Three Miles North of Molkom) is a gale force onslaught of isolation, verbal aggression and incessantly overbearing choral music that does not hit any of the right notes.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens