Monday, March 4, 2024

Movie Review: ‘The Banishing’ Uses Shame as Commentary

Director: Christopher Smith

Writers: David Beton, Ray Bogdanovich, and Dean Lines

Stars: Jessica Brown Findlay, John Heffernan, Anya McKenna-Bruce

Synopsis: The Banishing tells the story of the most haunted house in England. In the 1930s, a young reverend, his wife and daughter move into a manor with a horrifying secret.

Vicar’s wife Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay) joins her husband Linus (John Heffernan) at his new ominous Morley Hall post where Linus butts heads with local occultist Harry Reed (Sean Harris) and his secretive, threatening superior Bishop Malachi (John Lynch) in director Christopher Smith’s (Black Death) 2021 interwar parable The Banishing. Marianne’s daughter Adelaide (Anya McKenna-Bruce) finds hooded dolls in the playroom and both begin seeing doppelgangers and hearing bumps in the night – further dividing Linus and Marianne’s frosty relationship. As the history of previous religious orders comes to light; past evils, present sins, and continental whispers of war merge into fresh fear and violence for the young family.

Damaged olden bibles warn of controlling one’s sexual immorality before blood, hangings, and “emigrated to Australia” cover ups provide this pastoral vacancy. Unconsummated repression, Grace at the table, and scripture on wrongful lust and passion establish the tension in The Banishing before peepholes, heavy breathing, lingering paganism, red hair fears, and defaced texts. Heavy crosses high on the wall look down upon the bed – only the church can see one through tough times, and this pent-up generation between wars makes for a great backdrop to the horror, tombs, and rumors of Nazi occult. The previously burned down monastery history and the suspect manor built on top the ruins are forewarned up front rather than chopping up and delaying the story for the audience. Call and response or hide and seek games give the chance to explore the rusty, industrial basement, and dark corridors visualize the horrors in the mind sneaking up on you when we try to forget them.

These characters are shamed into facing who they are, and the struggle to look oneself in the mirror is worse when their reflections don’t match. Is it the distortion of who we are versus who we present or images from the past pressuring us to escape ourselves? Objects move by themselves and chilling hooded figures approach in the garden as the delayed seeing of oneself committing bloody acts of violence leaves the viewers questioning which side of the mirror we’re watching. Townsfolk whisper about men who convince others to do bad things because torture brings one closer to god, but church sanctioned thugs silence those who speak of past drownings and behind closed doors suspicions. Distorted consequences and disturbing vignettes in the final act escalate as counter rituals and biblical readings combat secrets, medieval mutilation, and calls for the dirty to confess their heretics. Candles snuff out as premonitions and delirium mount in the race to save innocents with proper rectification. Unfortunately, power will corrupt even the most peaceful if good men do nothing – leading to frightful desecrations and real world evil. 

The previous wife at Morley Hall is said to have done things unbecoming a vicar’s wife, but Jessica Brown Finlay’s Marianne tries to tell her husband it is okay to share a bed. She is admired for her fiery spirit yet chastised for having previously given up her out of wedlock daughter and lying that the child was her sister’s. Young Anya McKenna-Bruce as daughter Adelaide does what she has to do with spooky toys, creepy play tea parties, and eerily telling Marianne she is not her mother.  There is no precocious excess necessary as the denials fester and evil awaits to shame Marianne. Legs open birthing imagery and visions of Marianne pregnant and institutionalized for her condition exacerbate the stigma as she is called a slut for cherishing her child’s conception. 

Women are upheld as dutiful yet condemned as sinful, and such secrets leave Adelaide open to evil exposure. Marianne sought solace in the church, but the institution giveths or takeths away as needed. His congregation is small, attendance is poor, and John Heffernan’s (Dickensian) new vicar is surprised his wife has come to join him. Linus is angry at their mute housekeeper for wearing a superstitious pendant when not praying, kneeling, lighting candles, and wondering why evil exists. He won’t help unzip Marianne’s dress, yet yells at her for wanting to donate the house’s unused metal for a war drive that’s not their business because it is the property of the church. She doesn’t think he should correct her if he is not going to touch her like a wife, but he is content to look the other way, assured that England is completely safe and hushing her for saying the church alone will not get them through their troubles. 

Linus’ sermons proclaim that violence only begets violence and that war is a sin, and locals call him out for saying that The Great War deceased were sinners. The Banishing shrewdly addresses history and closed mindedness with horror as the current men of Morley Hall drive the past darkness and fear. Their shortcomings and exploitations spread division rather than unity, and the villagers also confront Bishop Malachi (John Lynch), a cruel leader who knows everyone’s secrets. He snaps the increasingly repressed, drunken Linus in place, warning him against Harry Reid (Sean Harris) as so called charlatan occultist. Linus demands everything be clean and refuses to hear the local history from Reed, but Harry asks what his vice is, for Morley Hall will use it against his family. 

Unlike cutting corners often seen in low budget horror, The Banishing is filmed as a drama with open church spaces, long hallways, and stairs making room for in camera bizarre, foreground and background multiples, doubles on the ceiling, and figures coming and going through the looking glass. Well lit natural lighting highlights the gardens, wallpaper, woodworks, and antiques; but most of the costly manor is shuttered with faulty electricity, humble furnishings, a playroom with vintage toys, and dolls without eyes. There’s no gross out horror or torture porn, but flashlights and cold blue schemes herald the eerie nursery ward with dolls in the cribs. Orange firelight and red lights provide horror coloring, yet the ecclesiastic motifs, religious iconography, and ritual in The Banishing are meager.

The church as an institution looms large but its customs are not steeped in daily life. Period undergarments, however, add a then scandalous lingerie allure to contrast the innocent gramophone, retro phone ring ring, vintage cars, and demure hats. Taking inspiration from the real life Borely Rectory, The Banishing could simply be described as a straightforward haunting with our protagonists trying to bring peace to the past tortured. Thankfully, the sophisticated storytelling doesn’t underestimate the audience with the jump scares, cool effects, and frights a minute but instead provides viewer food for thought as the past and present images merge. The interwar period setting anchors the slow burn unease as chilling introspection, social commentary, and “thoughts and prayers” metaphors in The Banishing ask who we show others versus who we really are. Just like our contemporary social stigmas and cancel culture, this house feeds on your shame, and our past is always waiting in the mirror, forcing us to look over our shoulder, and haunting our lives.    

Grade – B+


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