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Review by Rich Cline |
dir Sebastian Lelio
scr Emma Donoghue, Sebastian Lelio, Alice Birch
prd Tessa Ross, Ed Guiney, Juliette Howell, Andrew Lowe
with Florence Pugh, Tom Burke, Kila Lord Cassidy, Niamh Algar, Elaine Cassidy, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, Brian F O'Byrne, Josie Walker, Dermot Crowley, David Wilmot, Caolan Byrne
release Ire/UK/US 4.Nov.22
22/Ireland Netflix 1h42
TORONTO FILM FEST
Is it streaming?
Produced with both a remarkable attention to period detail and a subtly intriguing edge, this film has a painterly visual sensibility that's almost hypnotic. Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Lelio brings an offbeat perspective to this 19th century Irish tale exploring the tension between religion and science. While the film is rather hushed and underpowered, the story bristles with larger themes about how everyone needs to have faith in something.
In 1862, nurse Lib (Pugh) leaves England for post-famine Ireland, where she is engaged in a job alongside a nun, Sister Michael (Walker). They have been hired by a committee of community leaders to watch 11-year-old Anna (Cassidy), who has miraculously survived without eating for four months. As Lib tries to solve this riddle, she crosses Anna's mother (Elaine Cassidy), a local doctor (Jones), priest (Hinds) and landowner (O'Byrne). Meanwhile, London journalist Will (Burke) turns up to cover the story and questions why Lib won't stand up to the men who are controlling the situation.
Opening surreally on a soundstage with a plaintive scene-setting voiceover by Algar (who plays one of Anna's family members), this is a story about storytelling itself, and specifically the way people force people into narratives that support their beliefs and opinions. Events are complicated by the way each character is dealing with issues of grief, loss and mortality, feelings that echo throughout cinematographer Ari Wegner's dark and lushly textured visuals. So there's always a sense that the story is bigger than it seems.
Even with the whispery dialog and underlit sets, the entire cast is vivid. Pugh brings powerful depth to her character, drawing the audience into Lib's haunting attempts to make peace with her tragic past as a young wife and mother. She carries Lib's private demons with her in every scene, adding intense subtext. Her overwhelming conundrum is her desire to help Anna, even as she's only been paid to observe her. Burke offers a terrific outsider sensibility as the nosey Will, who manages to pry Lib open.
The central theme is that "we are nothing without stories", a phrase repeated throughout the film, once spoken directly to-camera. As underlying secrets are revealed, the meaning of this shifts dramatically, inventively exploring how tales can obscure truth and enable oppressors. Yet we still need them to make sense of our lives. With clever filmmaking, Lelio allows these ideas to become wrenchingly moving as the narrative heads in sometimes startling directions.
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© 2022 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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