Monday 16 November 2020

Blood Harvest (Canada 2020: Dir Thomas Robert Lee)

Blood Harvest sets its stall out by way of a pre credit crawl: in 1873 a group of families branched out from the Church of Ireland and set up shop in an isolated forest area in North America, eschewing all scientific progress. In 1956 an eclipse presaged a pestilence which spread throughout the community, killing both crops and livestock: only one homestead remained immune, owned by Agatha Earnshaw (Catherine A Dark Song Walker). Earnshaw has remained relatively prosperous, much to the annoyance of the local townsfolk, from whom she is several miles removed. And there's a reason for her continued isolation; she has a daughter, Audrey (Jessica Reynolds), who no-one knows about; Audrey is kept out of sight and hidden in a box loaded on to her wagon, when Agatha needs to go to town.

As the film opens, it's 1973 (and it's quite an M. Night Shyamalan touch to see a village dressed in the clothes of two centuries previously, knowing that elsewhere the Vietnam war rages and there's a crook in the White House); Audrey is 17, growing in independence and becoming tired of being kept out of sight, for example when a local man, Lochlan Bell (Tom Carey) comes to the farm to (unsuccessfully) barter for goods. Later, while guiding her cart through town, Agatha is confronted by angry villagers who have gathered for a funeral. Audrey, in her box, witnesses the confrontation and her mother being struck by one man, Colm Dwyer (Jared Abrahamson) who with his wife Bridget (Hannah Emily Anderson) have just buried their baby boy Liam. But worse is to come; when Audrey is briefly let out of the box she is seen by one of the villagers, Bernard Buckley (Don McKellar); although, in return for the donation of produce by Agatha, he promises not to tell, both women realise that the secret about Audrey will soon be public knowledge.

Audrey is incensed that Agatha wants no revenge against those who have slighted her, as she can draw on great powers; for Agatha is a witch, and the reason for her prosperity - as the villagers gradually starve - is entirely down to supernatural reasons. And so Audrey, who also has powers, possibly even stronger than her mother, takes it upon herself to wreak that revenge, slowly contaminating the villagers, turning them against each other, while all the time becoming more confident and subversive.

I'm guessing that the title Blood Harvest was forced on the film to make it more appealing to VODers scrolling through viewing choices; its original titles 'The Ballad of Audrey Earnshaw' and later 'The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw' are perhaps more descriptive of the slowburn lyrical nature of the movie. And Blood Harvest is a considered piece; while it has moments of violence, much is not shown and the audience has to work to join some of the narrative dots. The themes of an isolated religiously ostracised rural community trying to eke out a living surrounded by towering dense forests, and a whiff of witchcraft, both bring to mind Robert Eggers' 2015 film The Witch (although Lee's movie is far more upfront about the uncanny elements).

The sense of a once God fearing community feeling that the same God has abandoned them, and their lack of salvation once Audrey's revenge takes hold, is occasionally very painful to watch, particularly as the 'justice' is unrelenting and sometimes savagely drawn out. Splitting the film into four sections: Incantation; Descent; Fallout; and Spring encases the story in ritual, much as the village farmers have geared their lives, with ever diminishing returns, to the cycle of the seasons. I really liked this movie; full of passionate and impassioned performances, by turn quiet and nuanced and shocking and ugly.

Signature Entertainment presents Blood Harvest on DVD and Digital HD from Monday 16th November

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