The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw uses its isolated setting and characters to weave a compelling story about the nature of faith, sacrifice and self-preservation.
Synopsis: A mother and daughter are suspected of witchcraft by their devout rural community.
The setup for The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw (shortened to Audrey for the rest of this review) is unusual. A opening text crawl sets the scene of an Irish community who chose to settle in North America in 1873. The community begins to experience a shortage of crops in 1956 which continues to cause dire circumstances for the settlement. This coincides with an eclipse, in which Agatha Earnshaw (Catherine Walker) gives birth to a daughter who she keeps secret from the rest of the settlement. The film itself starts in 1973, with the settlement still living in isolation from the wider world’s advancements.
The choice to place the action within 1973 but otherwise treat it as a period piece is a slightly strange one, although meaningful. The events of 1973 America including the overturning of Roe vs Wade, the ongoing Watergate scandal and the continuation of the Vietnam War mark it as a period of large shifts and changes to daily life. The film presents the settlement as a place where these changes have no impact, with the rural location acting as both a shield and cage for those within it. The devoutly religious community are experiencing a collective crisis of faith, as despite their continued commitment to God, they have experienced suffering for almost 20 years. This growing anger and desperation turns attentions to Agatha, who has somehow escaped the ongoing tragedies.
The titular Audrey (Jessica Reynolds) is Agatha’s secret daughter, 17 years old at the time of the film’s events and starting to tire of being hidden, including being forced to be transported inside a wooden crate. After an angry encounter with Colm Dwyer (Jared Abrahamson) at his baby son’s funeral, Agatha attempts to retreat and not cause any problems, but Audrey has other ideas about the culture her mother has previously shielded her from in which Agatha is regarded with suspicion for her farmland’s success. Agatha’s response to this is further isolation and a hardening against the community when they seek help. Reynolds plays Audrey with a controlled energy, starting as timid and evolving into simmering anger and iciness as the plot develops. Her performance never needs to turn up the volume to further the dramatic effect, with her cold, detached nature having more of an impact. Catherine Walker, whose performance in A Dark Song has already cemented her as an incredible performer is excellent here, veering from confident to increasingly nervous and pained. The ensemble performances are also incredibly strong, with director Thomas Robert Lee allowing actors breathing space to truly inhabit their roles and enhance the sense of desperation. Hannah Emily Anderson as Colm’s wife Bridget is given some of the more physically demanding elements and her frayed performance as a grieving woman inspires empathy.
Stark photography of the community’s rural landscape and dated interiors works incredibly well to create atmosphere and sense of a world made small. The rural setting lends itself to imagery of both animals and produce rotting from the inside out. While there are moments where more graphic material is shown, the real strength of Audrey is that it carefully measures when to switch the camera away, allowing the audience to fill in the gaps. This technique is so successful as it detracts from any potential special effects dissonance. That said, the effects are excellent, allowing time for the camera to linger on the unpleasant, rotting and other damage. This economical approach means that you feel the helplessness of the situation without feeling bombarded by grisly imagery where the effect is diminished. An emotional outburst in church from Bernard Buckley (Don McKellar) referencing only some of the area’s tragedies is another example of how these suggestions allow your own mind to create what is most scary to you.
As the situation escalates the film still retains a confidence in its quieter moments. A scene in which Lochlan Bell (Tom Carey) and his wife Mary (Anna Cummer) eat a meal with their young daughter is electric in its intensity, playing out with almost no dialogue. Cummer perfectly articulates Mary’s impotent fury at their situation. The alternate title, The Ballad of Audrey Earnshaw is arguably more fitting, echoing the lyrical pace of the film and the way her decision to kick back against the situation starts a spiral of destruction that spreads throughout the area in sections, the progress of which is denoted by one-word title cards. With the exploration of the lengths people will go to in order to protect themselves and how grief, loss and deprivation cause those suffering to seek others to blame, Audrey feels timely, despite its period-ish setting.
Overall, The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw is a chill-inducing study of a community in crisis whose belief system has seemingly failed them. The careful creation of the stark and isolated environment creates an incredible atmosphere. With disquieting but perfectly assembled folk horror imagery and fantastic performances Audrey is worth letting out of the box.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw screens as part of Fantasia 2020 on August 22nd.