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Saturday, 8 October 2016

BFI LFF 2016: THE NOONDAY WITCH (Polednice) - Dir. Jiri Sádek

Furthering the return to prominence of the “folk-horror”, most notably with Ben Wheatley’s Kill List and Robert Eggers The VVitch, is the atmospheric The Noonday Witch. First time feature director Jiri Sádek delivers a captivating, if not entirely satisfying, blend of the supernatural and psychological to a story of a mother’s relationship with her daughter.

Eliska (Anna Geislerová) has left the hustle and bustle of the big city for the rural Czech village where her husband grew up, hoping for a fresh start with her daughter Anetka (Karolína Lipowská). With the sun bearing down on the parched land, the weight of a secret takes its toll on their relationship and the threat of the Noonday Witch looms ever larger.



Genre tropes would perhaps dictate a gloomy rural setting for this tale but the sun drenched cottages and fields of golden crops gives the story a fresh dynamic, where daylight offers no relief from Eliska’s encroaching fears. Despite the staggering natural beauty of the Czech countryside on display, Sádek and cinematographer Alexander Surkala maintain a tangible sense of unease (reminiscent of the imposing Transylvanian backdrop of Peter Strickland’s Katalin Varga); at no point does any character saunter through the fields with their hands gently brushing through the tips of the seed heads.

Eliska’s struggles to settle her daughter in their new home are intensified by the unwavering heat (and resulting drought), the unwanted amorous advances of boozy neighbour Zdenek (Jirí Strébl) and financial troubles that threaten to derail their new life before it has begun. More troublesome though is the story of the Noonday Witch (a prominent figure in Eastern European folklore) as told by Mrs Mrázová (Daniela Kolárová), whose tragic life story lingers at the back of Eliska’s mind.



The gradual deterioration of Eliska’s mental stability is steadily and confidently paced in Sádek’s direction and Michal Samir’s writing. A handful of scares are effectively placed into the proceedings to maintain the all-important disquiet without cheapening the more measured storytelling. Anna Geislerová skilfully portrays Eliska’s ever-growing plight whilst Lipowská also impresses, balancing childlike innocence with a believable awareness to her mother’s deception that isn’t overly precocious.

The steady pace works well for much of the film but less so as the psychological and supernatural elements come to the fore. Whilst an overly bombastic finale would undo all of the meticulously crafted build up, there’s an apparent reluctance to embrace even a few more scare tactics. Comparisons with Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook are almost unavoidable and whereas that film escalated from a carefully paced drama into an alarming and arresting climax, The Noonday Witch coasts across the line at a level that feels somewhat unsatisfying. The ending itself, whilst definitely not ambiguous, is lacking some logical rigour; it’s not clear how and why the presented outcome was reached and how other possible scenarios were avoided.

That immediate sense of disappointment at the limp finale soon dissipates as it’s the distinctive setting, engaging performances and measured storytelling that linger longer. There’s plenty to impress and entertain arthouse horror crowd in The Noonday Witch and marks its creative crew as one to keep a lookout for in the future.



The Noonday Witch plays at the 60th BFI London Film Festival on Saturday 8th October 2016 and Monday 10th October 2016.

Visit the festival website for screening times and ticket details.

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