She Will – think of it as a rhyme for Free Will rather than the beginning of an unfinished sentence – a declaration of independence by a woman on behalf of all women, with a payback moment late on that’s received by a character played by Malcolm McDowell, perhaps on behalf of all men.
Stated baldly the plot sounds exactly like the sort of thing you’d expect horror film network Shudder to find interesting (they have indeed picked it up) – an ageing grand dame actress recovering from a mastectomy heads to Scotland for some R&R at what she thinks is a solitary retreat. When she and her private nurse get there, they find they’re not alone. The big spooky old house has been taken over by an art school run by a fruity creative type. Outside in the woods, the new arrivals are told, lie the graves of many an 18th-century unfortunate killed horribly for being a witch.
Straightforward enough. The old bird is going to visit extreme unpleasantness on the art crowd, or the art guy is going to get weird, or the witches are going to rise from their graves, or the nurse is going to turn the old dear into her bitch, or something.
But, two things. One: giallo maestro Dario Argento’s name is attached to this as executive director, so it’s probably not going to be plain sailing. Two: director Charlotte Colbert seems to be a fan of Andrei Tarkovsky.
Straightforward storytelling is out, in other words. The lurid and dreamlike, impressionistic and moody is in. What originally had all the trappings of a horror version of a genteel Agatha Christie murder mystery – a bunch of eccentrics out in a big country house somewhere – isn’t going to turn out that way at all.
Rupert Everett, underused but good while he’s on screen, delivers slabs of ham as the art guy whose main aim in life is flirting with middle aged female art wannabes. But he’s a sideshow. This is really all about the grande dame, Veronica Ghent, played as hauteur incarnate by Alice Krige, and her nurse Desi, Kota Eberhardt getting it just right as a woman with her own story, who nevertheless knows she’s not number one here.
It’s a strangely accomplished cast with excellent actors appearing on screen for scant seconds in roles that anyone could have filled – like Amy Manson (see 2019’s Run for proof) or Olwen Fouéré (The Survivalist). Most obvious token of that is Malcolm McDowell as a famous somebody in film who, back in his dark past, had some sort of unpleasant dealing with Veronica when she was very young (he over-familiarly calls her “Nica”) and whose comeuppance forms the film’s climax.
He’s in it for maybe five minutes, and none of his scenes are with the rest of the cast. But it resonates.
This is Colbert’s first film so bagging this sort of cast – not to mention getting Clint Mansell to supply the atmospheric score – is a signal of something. That they recognise quality, perhaps, because Colbert has a hell of an eye and her own distinctive look – detached and dark and spare and high end.
She’s also not averse to using the movie camera almost as a stills camera, assembling segments in scenes from collaged snapshots. Rain falls, trees stand like sentries in the woods, birds flock, mist roll, water courses. To these Colbert adds peeps from the past – Veronica’s own – and ancient history, with flash-glimpses of witches who have suffered cruelly.
As in Tarkovsky’s Mirror, there is the suggestion that we exist as layered creatures and that the past lives on in us in ways we can’t always appreciate. To this Colbert and co-writer Kitty Percy add a feminist element, reclaiming the idea of the witch as Veronica graduates from passive patient to active revengetrix (is that even a word?), emboldened by whisperings from her dead sisters in suffering of long ago.
It’s a striking debut, a bold one. It sets out to achieve something and pulls it off. Action junkies and lovers of a good story might be disappointed, but fans of spooky stories where mood is all will love it.
She Will – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2022