Lord of Misrule - New Release Review
Director: William Brent Bell
Starring: Tuppence Middleton, Ralph Ineson, Matt Stokoe, Anton Valensi, Evie Templeton
Written by: Tom de Ville
Produced by: William Brent Bell, Nik Bower, Alison Brister, Laurie Cook, Deepak Nayar, Jason Newmark, James Tomlinson
Cinematography by: Simon Rowling
Original Score by: Brett Detar
When the new Vicar's young daughter Grace goes missing at the local festival, the villagers and local police join in a desperate search. However, the closer they edge towards finding Grace, the more secrets emerge from the village’s dark past.
Writer Tom de Ville has said that when he was writing the script, two significant cultural things were occurring side by side: "People were starting to take renewed interest in folk horror through the rediscovery of writers like Robert Aickman, and secondly the real world was torn apart by some very messy politics - Brexit in the UK and Trump in the US". Folk horror, at its core, regardless of its setting, characters, or aesthetic, is always about what de Ville describes as "old fears and superstitions turning people against each other, generally driven by blind faith". It is therefore not surprisingly that this genre of horror is becoming more and more popular because, for some of us, folk horror is alive and well. It is our reality.
'Lord of Misrule' tells the tale of Christian Vicar Rebecca (Tuppence Middleton), who has moved to a small British village with her husband and daughter. During the village’s celebrated harvest festival, which to outsiders looks like a fun callback to an older time but to the villagers is a crucial part of their survival, Rebecca’s daughter goes missing. She soon discovers that she has been taken by Gallowgog, an ancient Pagan being who the village’s original founders made a deal with – in return for a child sacrifice, the villagers can live in peace and have a bountiful harvest. A pretty standard folk horror plot reminiscent of 'The Wicker Man'.
What makes this film more than a copy-and-paste of Robin Hardy's classic is its beautifully muted cinematography, its exploration of disturbing pagan mythology in the context of a family drama, and contrasting religious beliefs.
Tuppence Middleton is an absolute delight as our lead. She is willful, strong, and driven. Without her, the plot does not move and you can feel her tenacity through the screen. Her isolation within the village is successfully achieved by isolating shots of her alone, even though we know there are other people in the room with her. Her outsider status is constant throughout the film but it is conveyed subtly through this creative use of camerawork, framing, and distorted lenses. What surprised me about her character development was that even though she was faced with a creature from a religion older than her own – the Gallowgog’s costume design was absolutely brilliant and sold it as a real haunting and ancient creature – her own Christian faith never wavered. If anything, it made her faith in God stronger. Usually with folk horror, characters with contrasting religions lose all faith or become wrapped up in the specific religion of where they are, but Rebecca doesn’t do that, and her obvious devotion is a credit to Middleton’s performance. She feels believable.
Another fantastic character is Jocelyn Abney, our primary antagonist and resident Lord of Misrule. With his deep, penetrating voice and ambiguous facial expressions, Ralph Ineson is able to portray someone sincerely menacing but who also makes us sympathise with him. He was in Rebecca’s shoes twelve years prior, when his son was sacrified to the Gallowgog. But the difference between he and Rebecca is that he did not look for his son and willingly became the Gallowgog’s minion. Rebecca not only saves her daughter but comes to be, in a way, respected by the Gallowgog and by the villagers as a result. Jocelyn’s eventual death, burnt on a pyre, feels earned and deserved. Plus, Jocelyn’s Lord of Misrule costume is by far the best of the entire film. It feels like he belongs in it and the effort the costume department went to make it feel medieval is evident in its old-looking colours and textures.
One character I wasn’t convinced by, however, was Rebecca’s husband. He feels like a cardboard cut out at times and barely has any agency or sense of character until the end of the film, where he sacrifices himself to save Rebecca and their daughter. His death is creative – a sack is dipped in lighter fluid, placed on his head and set alight – but it doesn’t have the emotional impact it should because I didn’t believe in his relationship with Rebecca. Unlike Jocelyn’s death, it didn’t feel earned or powerful in the way it should have.
The cinematography is stunning. It creatively reflects the tone of the story, with rich autumnal colours during the fun harvest festival scenes turning to a dismal grey as Rebecca becomes more and more tormented by her missing child and the horrors she experiences at the hands of the villagers and the Gallowgog. The production design is simple but effective. The village feels like a real place, one you could drive by and easily miss, leaving you none-the-wiser to the ancient evil lurking within it.
Overall, a beautifully shot film with mood enhancing cinematography and great performances. It is not particularly groundbreaking in its narrative structure or plot content (though the use of title cards to split the film into different days reflecting the pagan festival was pretty cool), but it is thoroughly enjoyable, and you can feel the passion for the story shine through in every aspect of the film.
Signature Entertainment presents 'Lord of Misrule' on Digital Platforms on January 8th