[Fantasia 2020 Review] 'The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw' is a Dark & Lingering Story of Power & Sacrifice
Folk horror is one of the strangest, most intricate subgenres out there. Grown from the seeds of paranoia, it presents us with stories of our most unspeakable fears, occasionally reminding us of some of our more shameful moments in history and how little it takes to bring us back to them...
...Writer/director Thomas Robert Lee’s dark examination of societal strife, familial control, and the explosive power of secrets is a formidable entry to the genre. The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw, having just made its World Premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival, knows its roots, and just how to twist them into something new and unfathomably dark.
Agatha Earnshaw (Catherine Walker) has a secret. A secret that floats in the air of her town laced with equal parts judgement and fear. The only prosperous member of a rural community whose very soil seems sown with devastation. For years, it has been nothing more than whispered rumors and sidelong glances. But one night, following a chance encounter with a mourner on the road, despite her best efforts her secret is revealed: Agatha Earnshaw has a daughter (Jessica Reynolds). A daughter so ethereally beautiful and brimming with power, simply to look upon her is to feel the rest of your life is hardly worth living. Agatha bribes the man to silence but knows it won’t last. Audrey’s existence has been a dark rumor of the town for years, already tied to a death from years past. Agatha Earnshaw’s prosperity and life as she knows it soon begins to unravel, along with the rest of the town, as Audrey becomes more comfortable and aware of her power, unwilling to hide herself any longer.
Audrey Earnshaw might be my favorite witch character to date. She desires both freedom from and revenge against a town that has shamed her mother and condemned her to a life of keeping hidden. She is also intimately aware of the depth of her power and knows just how to use it to wreak complete havoc. The town, stuck in the ways of their pilgrim ancestors, harbors the same paranoia and distrust as any from the Witch Trial era, when all manner of misfortune was blamed on the acts of women who were outsiders. It is this distrust which leads the town to accuse Agatha of heathen dealings to gain her prosperity while the rest of them suffered, and to descend into utter chaos when Audrey reveals herself one by one to the people responsible for the destruction of her security and her condemnation. What begins as a quest for vengeance against people who have wronged her mother eventually becomes an exploration of her power and the pursuit of her freedom.
It takes an extraordinary level of talent to portray someone filled with equal parts innocence and unfathomable rage, and Jessica Reynolds wields this talent with impressive skill in her first feature length role. She exudes power in such a beautifully unsettling way I knew at once I was watching one of the coldest portrayals of witchcraft and the occult I’ve ever seen. Her calculated, individually crafted vengeance on each member of the town that seeks to suppress her brought an element of originality to the genre not often seen. At once burning with passion and untouchably cold, she brings the town to its knees almost entirely by its own hand. The first man to fall at her mercy, Bernard (Don McKeller), the mourner who discovered her arguing with her mother on the road, described the feeling of being near her as “a comfort to know how truly insignificant you are”. And he’s right; she never speaks a word when they see one another, but stares at him with such magnetic force it’s as if she sees directly into his soul, and to be seen with such intensity is an unfathomably powerless experience. By the end of it he feels hollowed out, no longer himself, no longer able to imagine anything but what it felt like, entirely consumed by the void of her beauty and awful power. Every instance after that is both exploration and calculated act designed to bring about the complete destruction of her chosen victims.
While Reynolds’ performance undoubtedly makes this film, every cast member is equally strong. Every role feels lived in and real, creating an absorbing experience known only to the best films of folk horror and allowing us a window into the depth of this town’s sorrow and pain. While every terrible tragedy seems centered around Audrey’s existence, the townspeople suffer it long before her appearance. They’re suffering hunger, death, desperation that leads them to unspeakable acts in the name of survival, and we see every line and breath of it from these characters.
Nick Thomas’ cinematography is equally beautiful and haunting as any performance, bathing this town stuck in the past in a stifling atmosphere of unrelenting tragedy. Audrey Earnshaw feels cold and unforgiving from the very first frame to the last, and while we may not feel hollowed out, we are certainly left haunted, not just by what we’ve seen, but by the idea of what’s been left unsaid, unshown, and the potential of what’s to come.
Curse of Audrey Earnshaw takes some familiar elements of occult folk horror and twists them into something fresh, creating a dark and lingering story of suffering and survival no matter the cost, of power and sacrifice, of rumors and legacies not soon forgotten, and of a land as poisoned as the hearts of its people. Jessica Reynolds bursts onto the film scene with unforgettable command, and I can’t wait to see what she does next. If you’re looking for a new favorite tale of witchcraft, Audrey Earnshaw is unmissable.
By Katelyn Nelson
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