Lapwing is a film set in 16th-century England with just enough background detail to get the thing moving, at which point writer Laura Turner and director Philip Stevens get busy with what they’re really about – pressure-cooker drama.
The time. In 1554 the Egyptian Act made it essentially illegal to be a dark-skinned person of no fixed abode in England. It was aimed at Egyptians (as Gypsies were called). It also made it illegal to offer Egyptians help.
The place. The North Sea coast, where a small group of intinerant workers are harvesting salt, bagging it up and taking it to market.
As the action opens, a small gang of “Egyptians” have approached this gang headed by the bullying loudmouthed David (Emmett J Scanlan). Money changes hands. A ship has been arranged but won’t be along for “a few weeks”. In the interim, the Egyptians are to stay well away from David and his lot.
The Egyptians might be traders, we have no idea. We do know that David and his crew are salt harvesters, because the press release says so, though we see them doing no actual harvesting of salt. No boiling of big vessels to drive off the water. No natural evaporation in wide shallow salt pans. No equipment.
That’s OK, because this isn’t really about Egyptians or salt harvesting. Instead the action plays out between David, a man who could pick a fight with himself, and whose mouth never stops moving, and Patience, the lowliest of this low gang, a young woman described as a mute but who can sing perfectly well – some deep, unexplored trauma lurks in her back story.
It’s a him versus her story, the vocal and the voiceless, pushed into motion when Patience catches the eye of one of the Egyptians, much to the disgruntlement of David, who sees Patience as his chattel, and possible part-time sex toy.
But Rumi (Sebastian De Souza) is a handsome young dark-skinned man and Patience (Hannah Douglas) is a pretty young woman possibly angling for an escape from the daily round of abuse, physical and verbal, which David metes out to the group.
Rumi says barely a word. Patience cannot (or will not) speak. Hardly anyone else in the group utters a word either, leaving the floor to Emmett J Scanlan as David. He is dazzlingly, plausibly unpleasant as the natural born gobshite who, we hope, is going to get his comeuppance at some point. Scanlan is also faintly reminiscent of John Hawkes in Martha Marcy May Marlene, where another cult leader was sorely in need of a kicking.
Douglas is very good, and needs to be, because she’s got to do with looks the sort of acting work Scanlan has words to help him with. De Souza is fine. He’s a good looking chap and need be nothing more.
For the rest of it, it’s a soufflé of moodiness, cooked up largely between director Philip Stevens’s vistas – the wide sands, the big skies – and the score by Lee Gretton, which groans and creaks and moans and glowers. Impending threat is the aim, largely achieved, with the tension gradually increased until it hits breaking point. Patience sobs, David shouts, the music crouches. A reckoning is coming.
It’s Stevens’s debut feature, though he’s done a few shorts with Gretton before, and both are obviously in lock step with each other. Laura Turner’s screenplay is good, too, tight and tight-lipped. There are few surplus words here, unless you count David, whose vast expanses of often foul-mouthed verbiage mark him out as a target.
Films operating at the level of tone run the risk of being all style and no substance. Not Lapwing, which has a big coiled spring of conflict sitting right at its heart. We wait, we wait.
Lapwing – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2022