A Banquet - New Release Review
Director: Ruth Paxton
Starring: Sienna Guillory, Jessica Alexander, Ruby Stokes, Lindsey Duncan
Written by: Justin Bull
Produced by: Nik Bower, Leonora Darby, James Harris, Laure Vaysse, Mark Lane
Cinematography by: David Liddell
Original Score by: CJ Mirra
A widowed mother is radically tested when her teenage daughter insists a supernatural experience has left her body in service to a higher power.
Ruth Paxton’s directorial debut is an intimately unnerving psychological horror that explores themes of grief, faith, abandonment and maternal anxiety. Sienna Guillory (Resident Evil Afterlife, Raised by Wolves) stars as the recently widowed Holly, mother of Betsey and Izzy, who is learning to get by after the disturbing death of her husband. Holly’s relationship with her daughters isn’t anything out of the ordinary but it’s clear there is something bubbling away during the eerie silences between the three.
While Izzy (Ruby Stokes) is habitually attending the local ice rink, Betsey (Jessica Alexander) spends her spare time routinely hanging with friends and at a party one night after getting drunk and snorting coke (presumably for the 1st time) she walks outside to the nearby woods during a blood red moon sky and has an “experience”. We don’t really know exactly what she experiences but she certainly becomes changed because of it. Slowly but surely Betsey begins to transform internally. Subdued and acquiescent, Betsey eventually stops eating altogether to the obvious concern of her mother Holly. However this isn’t a story about, as Holly admits during a sudden and angry tirade, an entitled middle class white girl seeking attention via an eating disorder. It soon becomes evident that something "supernatural" is draining Betsey of her identity.
Paxton is an extremely talented filmmaker whose capabilities are highlighted in how she builds tension during specifically banal scenes. Slowly scraping food on and off a plate becomes a nail biting event. She’s captivated by silence and as a way to incite unease she enjoys focussing on Holly’s peculiar sensibilities as a mother, like how she carefully prepares meals for her daughters. Sienna Guillory is brilliant as the struggling mother but it’s the two younger actors who steal the show. Jessica Alexander as Betsey and Ruby Stokes as her younger sister Isabelle are both fantastic. The introduction of Lindsey Duncan as Granny about 45 minutes in turns the story in another direction as she really starts to question Betsey's motives. Her lack of faith in Betsey's explanation about her transformation drives a wedge between each of the family members and we even get a vague backstory about how overprotective and harsh she was to Holly when she was a child.
There’s a lot to like about ‘A Banquet’. As mentioned above the entire cast are brilliant and the script is pretty tight too. However as well as the tension serves, it doesn’t exactly lead up to anything breathtaking and the entire film works as a dangling carrot that we never ever really get to munch on. There’s some gorgeous lighting in places but a huge percentage of the shots are in semi-darkness. It really did feel like the family home didn’t have any lamps at all and while it does help with the atmosphere it’s also a little off putting. The set designs are cold and extremely grim. Perhaps this was done on purpose to heighten the idea of lifelessness and isolation and the fact that a shadow hangs over the family. The sound is great too. Very foreboding but there are times when it was a tad excessive just for the sake of it.
Despite its deliberately plodding pace I was never bored because the intrigue was always there and there was just enough happening to keep me guessing. There’s a red herring that turns out to be just a dream but I really wanted it to be the actual path the story was going to take. We could’ve seen some cool body horror but unfortunately they decided to play it a bit safe. When we eventually get some sort of revelation from Betsey about what she witnessed or felt under the blood red moon it’s just all a bit unsatisfying. There’s a six month time shift and we meet a very different version of Izzy, which seems to imply that she might have a larger role in the conclusion of the film but it fizzles out a bit. Holly’s intense desperation brings out the best of Guillory’s performance towards the end of the film as she is put through her ultimate test.
‘A Banquet’ is unsettling at times and Ruth Paxton is certainly one to watch. There’s no question she can get the best out of her cast and has an eye for atmosphere. Frustratingly the end is as ambiguous as the body of the film and left me wondering, if the script had more balls by deciding exactly what it wanted to be, just how much better the end product would’ve been.
- Gavin Logan
'A Banquet' is available on digital right now from Signature Entertainment