‘The Silent Storm': London Review

Jonathan Olley

Andrea Riseborough and Damian Lewis star in a love-triangle drama set on a remote Scottish island in the 1940s

The Silent Storm is a British drama written and directed Corinna McFarlane (Three Miles North of Molkom) set on a remote Scottish island in the late 1940s. You would think with two such estimable actors as Andrea Riseborough (Oblivion, Birdman) and Damian Lewis (TV's Homeland) on board, along with an admired director of photography (Joanna Hogg-alumnus Ed Rutherford) and executive producer-guidance from the Bond franchise's doyenne Barbara Broccoli, not much could go wrong. Alas, a lot has gone wrong. Inept direction and writing sets off a domino effect of wrongness that clacks through all aspects of the film, from the acting to the music and editing. The universe and the film business are cruel enough to ensure that this will likely resurface somewhere after its BFI London Film Festival premiere, maybe even in theatrical distribution, but for the sake of many of the reputations involved, it would be kinder left in obscurity.

The action unfolds sometime after World War II, on an unnamed, thinly populated island (the filming actually took place on Mull). With the local mine closing down, the population is about to get even thinner as residents leave seeking employment on the mainland. The local Protestant minister Balor McNeil (Lewis), however, is loath to budge, having enjoyed immense power over his flock, whom he browbeats ferociously into obeying his brand of Calvinist conformity. He advises one congregant (Kate Dickie), for example, that she should stay with her violent husband regardless of his behavior, a logical position for Balor given he treats his wife, Aislin (Riseborough), a non-native of mysterious origin, with similar emotional and physical abuse.

When a sensitive young offender named Fionn from Glasgow (newcomer Ross Anderson) is sent to be fostered by Balor and Aislin, Balor sets him the hardest chores to do on the family's croft, lectures him constantly on morality and even confiscates his precious modern-poetry books. Aislin, on the other hand, treats Fionn with kindness and helps him to appreciate the beauty of nature in general and the island in particular.

Clearly barmy as a moldy Dundee cake, Balor is overcome with an irresistible urge to take off his shirt and dismantle the local kirk and take all its pews and possessions to another church on the mainland, necessitating a dangerous journey by boat. This leaves Aislin and Fionn alone on the island. Soon, picnics by the seaside and backstory revelations inspire Aislin to wash her hair for a change and wear brighter sweaters, and that can only lead to no good. In this case, in a twist no sane viewer would ever see coming, it also means they decide to eat magic mushrooms together, prompting a lurid palette shift in the color processing. The dialogue hints that she may be from some quasi-pagan Nordic place originally, which supposedly explains her proto-hippy understanding of the healing property of plants and fungi.

This would presumably explain the character's very peculiar accent, an odd mix of Scots consonants and Icelandic lilt, although it makes less sense of her bizarre behavior, all doormatted victim one minute and spewing defiance the next. Poor Riseborough tries hard to square the circle emotionally, but the material defeats her. Lewis likewise throws himself into the role of Balor with manic, goggle-eyed hysteria that's painful to watch, although perhaps not quite as painful as listening to his attempt at a Highlands accent. Of the three, screen debutant Anderson acquits himself with the most dignity.  

Editing credited to Kate Baird (Skyfall) keeps cutting to long shots, as if repeated viewings of the admittedly breathtaking landscape will distract us from the plot. But by far the worst element in the technical package is the choral-soaked bombastic score that desperately tries to imbue the proceedings with unearned poignancy.

Production companies: A Neon Films production
Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Damian Lewis, Ross Anderson, Kate Dickie, John Sessions
Director-screenwriter: Corinna McFarlane
Producer: Nicky Bentham
Executive producers: Barbara Broccoli, Michael G. Wilson, Steve Milne, Christian Eisenbeiss, Hani Farsi, Goran R. Lazovich, Milan Markovic, Dr. Jerome Booth, Serena Fakhre, Peter Scarf, Adam Partridge, Marc Samuelson
Director of photography: Ed Rutherford
Production designer: Matthew Button
Costume designer: Sharon Long
Editor: Kate Baird
Composer: Alastair Caplin
Sales: WestEnd Films

No rating, 98 minutes

comments powered by Disqus