Omens and portents abound in The Other Lamb, action not so much. Following the story of Selah (Raffey Cassidy), it’s set in a cult headed by a man known as the Shepherd, otherwise populated exclusively by women, who are designated either as Wives or Daughters. For easy identification and to reduce individuality even more, the Wives dress in purple, the Daughters in Blue.
They live in the modern world but away from it, out in the woods where they slaughter their own animals – sheep, appropriately – and butcher the meat themselves. They seem content, happy even, though little jealousies flare now and again when Shepherd chooses to lay with one wife rather than another.
Why no other men? “There can be only one ram in the flock,” says Sarah (Denise Gough), a once-favoured wife who is now scorned, is “a broken thing”, as Shepherd terms her, and is kept apart from the other women lest she spread dissent.
Which is exactly what she does, most obviously to Selah, who starts the film in rapt adoration of Shepherd, trembling at the thought that he might one day lay with her and turn her from Daughter to Wife. But, via a series of eye-opening shocks, Selah comes to realise that the cost of contentment is too high.
It turns out that Selah’s mother was also one of Shepherd’s wives, which probably means that he is her father, though this is never spelled out – very little in this film is spelled out. We’re thrown in and have to work it out for ourselves.
What does seem obvious is that the system they live under is Old Testament, with Shepherd as a prophet who keeps his followers in line with religious ceremony – the blood of a slaughtered lamb daubed chrism-style on receptive heads finding an echo in Shepherd’s biblical distaste for “impure” menstrual blood.
Heavy patriarchy held in place by a totalising belief system – The Handmaid’s Tale, you’re thinking. Well I was. This claustrophobically atmospheric drama is on familiar ground. The clothes even look similar.
The portents build, the omens multiply – DP Michal Englert has a great eye for an ominous tree, knows how to make even sheep look scary, shoots the barren moorland as if it might bite (the Irish locations are fabulous) and at one point pulls off the most spectacular dolly zoom on Selah, to indicate that, you know, she’s becoming disocciated from her milieu.
Given how much effort has gone into the build-up, it seems almost perverse that the inevitable showdown – generational, political, genderal, theological – should happen off-screen, but that’s how writer CS McMullen and director Malgorzata Szumowska have decided to play it.
I could imagine Bradley Cooper in the Shepherd role, which Game of Thrones’ Michiel Huisman fills well – his soft voice suggesting the pent-up rage of a psychopath – even if the figure of the charismatic male cult leader is also very familiar (John Hawkes in 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene springs to mind).
Raffey Cassidy squeezes plenty of juice out of Selah, her eyes doing most of the work as Selah progresses from girl to woman and caged animal to wild beast. Aged 17/18, Cassidy is already a veteran. Surely great things beckon.
I enjoyed the film’s atmospherics, even if it’s hardly scoping new cultural territory – the cast work their butts off, the cinematography is magnificent, the scenery remarkable. But I was constantly expecting Elisabeth Moss’s June/Offred to make an appearance. That surely wasn’t the intention.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020