Studio: Epic Pictures
Director: Thomas Robert Lee
Writer: Thomas Robert Lee
Producer: Gianna Isabella
Stars: Catherine Walker, Jared Abrahamson, Hannah Emily Anderson, Geraldine O¡¯Rawe, Don McKellar, Sean McGinley, Jessica Reynolds
In a desperate farming community stricken by pestilence, an outcast suspected of witchcraft tries to keep her teenage daughter¡¯s existence a secret.
I ordinarily subscribe to Roger Ebert¡¯s philosophy that popular film reviews should present the author¡¯s opinion while leaving leeway for someone who thinks differently to gather the objective notes needed to fit a personalized frame. Pauline Kael-like critical dissection offers another approach, although that level of analysis frankly doesn¡¯t apply all that well to indie horror as a whole.
Consumer Reports-style reviews provide a third option. Other critics disapprove of these on the basis that they aren¡¯t academic enough. Plus, if a reader wants insight to help process a movie¡¯s content, ¡®Why to Buy/Not Buy¡¯ bullet points don¡¯t do much good for someone who has already seen the film.
Sometimes though, it just makes sense to almost divest myself of a firm personal perspective to instead imagine writing for a composite person with midline tastes. ¡°The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw¡± serves up one such plate where simply describing it in mostly straight terms offers a fair assessment of the film. Maybe that doesn¡¯t result in a thumb committed in one direction over the other. But it should define the movie for ¡°what it is¡± so anyone can independently determine if the film sounds right for him/her.
¡°The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw¡± was known as ¡°The Ballad of Audrey Earnshaw¡± once upon a time. ¡°Curse¡± is of course the flashier word, and one that better positions marketability. ¡°Ballad¡± more appropriately represents the movie¡¯s actual tone. Not in the ¡°sweet song¡± sense, but as an indication of poetic style. The film even segments itself with chapter headings complete with roman numerals to further identify the literary construction behind every major building block.
Heightening the ¡°book brought to life¡± feel, several sentences of text set the stage after opening logos. After emigrating away from the Church of England in the late 1800s, Irish farmers settled a community where they continued living according to 19th-century customs. This continued through 1956, when pestilence devastated their land. Only Agatha Earnshaw¡¯s farm was strangely spared, causing neighbors to call her a heretic who used witchcraft to prosper. Agatha gave birth to a daughter during this time, but knew it would be wise to keep Audrey¡¯s existence a secret, lest she invite additional invectives or even worse from incensed villagers blaming her for the blight.
The written narration doesn¡¯t use quite as many words, though you should now have a basic germ of what ¡°The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw¡± looks like. Picture an A24 dramatic thriller without as much cerebral seasoning. We¡¯re working with an atmospheric period piece along the lines of ¡°The Witch¡± (review here) with only a fraction of the arthouse flavoring. While ¡°The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw¡± does have a thematic layer about how facts influence where we invest our faith, and includes dreamy vision sequences too, don¡¯t expect it to also equal ¡°The Witch¡± in open-to-interpretation gothic moodiness.
When the black screen finally fades up on imagery, Audrey turns 17 in the autumn of 1973. She¡¯s still in hiding and it still looks like the area around the Earnshaw farm hasn¡¯t advanced a day in 100 years. Agatha continues to harvest healthy crops while the community continues to struggle with survival in the face of famine, disease, and death.
Secretly spying an uncomfortable encounter between her reclusive mother and a desperate farmer inspires questions from Audrey. Witnessing Agatha¡¯s open harassment at the hands of an angry villager then strikes a match of rage in the girl. Agatha only warns that the world is a fearful place full of ¡°villains¡± best left to their own business. Scratching a post-adolescent itch to step out of Agatha¡¯s shadow, Audrey forms her own suspicions about their neighbors while a desire to forge her own path grows. Audrey doesn¡¯t get encouragement from her mother, but she does get it from their coven, who not only exist, but agree Audrey should assert the dominance assured by her destiny, even if Agatha would rather continue to cower in secret.
By now, the seed planted earlier should have sprouted into an impression of ¡°The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw¡± adding a dark coming-of-age edge. Village-oriented drama where grieving families deal with suicide, familicide, and a problematic pregnancy stay in front while Audrey moves into the center.
Like anyone of her age, Audrey faces an ordinary crossroads of maturation, but under extraordinary circumstances of occultism and plagues. Audrey unfortunately isn¡¯t an overly sympathetic figure. Her urge to break Agatha¡¯s leash remains understandable yet her maddened methods of authoritatively acting out make her more waywardly petulant than justifiably defiant. She isn¡¯t hard to figure out, but it can be a challenging chore to see the situation from her side given her quick-tempered whining. Maybe she¡¯s merely more of a typical teenager than anyone could have imagined.
Completing the ¡°what it is¡± circle, ¡°The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw¡± rounds out as what a 1990s Merchant Ivory production might have looked like if they ever made a slow-burn horror fable. It¡¯s a sleepy story that someone will certainly call ¡°hauntingly beautiful,¡± two words which translate to ¡°snoozefest¡± in more viscerally-oriented vocabularies.
Arid auras and dusty colors in the production design reflect the bleakness of the setting and associated era. Actors invest deeply in characters, even if they are all dourly frowning folks confronting crippling depression. ¡°The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw¡± achieves elegant technical execution yet has such little personal resonance in its ¡°leathery old novel¡± tone, much of it won¡¯t be left in my mind by the time you read this. The indifference inspired leads me to conclude 50/100 is the safest score. I can only hope enough impartial information exists above that you can figure out which side of that slash you¡¯re most likely to land on.
Review Score: 50