'Apostasy': Film Review | San Sebastian 2017

Restores faith in British cinema.

Siobhan Finneran, Molly Wright and Sacha Parkinson lead the cast in writer-director Daniel Kokotajlo's debut, a U.K. drama premiering at the long-running festival.

Blood proves thicker than (holy) water in writer-director Daniel Kokotajlo's debut Apostasy, one of the year's strongest British films. A beautifully balanced glimpse into the world of Jehovah's Witnesses set in a humdrum corner of Manchester, it premiered at Toronto then belatedly emerged as one of the more buzzed-about New Directors contenders at San Sebastian.

Set for U.K. release via Curzon, this downbeat affair should parlay festival acclaim into niche theatrical distribution and small screen exposure. To do so it must overcome a title ("an act of refusing to continue to follow, obey, or recognize a religious faith") that's both tricky to pronounce and too bald a label for the screenplay's complex contents.

Himself a former Jehovah's Witness, Kokotajlo provides an insider's glimpse into this well known but often controversial branch of Christianity. These are the famously tireless, Watchtower-toting "people who knock on the door," whose high-profile adherents have included Prince, George Benson and the Williams sisters of tennis fame.

The list of those brought up in the faith who subsequently recanted includes such diverse names as Dwight Eisenhower, Michael Jackson, Naomi Campbell, Patti Smith, the Wayans brothers and Ja Rule. The latter quit the group after his mother was "disfellowshipped" — Witness equivalent of excommunication, and a process that plays a significant role here.

The focus of Kokotajlo's ingeniously structured script shifts fluidly between a mother and her two adult daughters, examining how deeply ingrained religious beliefs can be sorely tested by circumstances. Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) is a regular attendee at "meetings" held at her local Kingdom Hall. The terminology is precise: Witnesses, critical of pagan-influenced, linguistically dubious or "false" mainstream religions such as Catholicism ("airy fairy"), eschew such terms as "service" and "church."

Ivanna has brought up Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) and Alex (Molly Wright) to believe in "the truth" as professed by Witness teachings, which include the idea that Armageddon is imminent, to be followed by a "New System" in which the elect will live a blessed existence closer to God. Turning 18, Alex is an enthusiastic evangelist, learning Urdu to aid outreach activities. But the slightly older Luisa, more questioning and adventurous, drifts away from the faith after her relationship with a non-Witness results in her pregnancy. 

Luisa's subsequent disfellowship places Ivanna in a painful position; Witness rules dictate she can have only minimal contact with her distraught daughter. There is also the matter of Alex's delicate health: She has been anemic since birth, but Witness laws preclude blood transfusions even in life-threatening situations.

Kokotajlo handles some potentially melodramatic plot developments with tact and audacious restraint. Indeed, he takes the very bold step of eliding major incidents that most filmmakers would place front and center. Dividing the story into discrete chapters with cuts to black screen, or sometimes to Bible extracts presented on title cards, Kokotajlo and editor Napoleon Stratogiannakis convey the impression that we are being allowed controlled glimpses into tightly controlled lives (it's also telling that the "Elders" we see are all bald, besuited, middle-aged men).

This approach risks clinical or mannered results, but in Kokotaljo's hands the emphasis is firmly and profitably upon the characters and their interplay. Crucially, he elicits a trio of exceptional performances from his three female leads. The very experienced Finneran finds layers of nuance in Ivanna, whose external certitude masks considerable inner torment. Soap graduate Parkinson gets the juiciest lines and situations, and copes superbly with all the heavy emotional lifting; Wright is wrenchingly affecting in her auspicious big-screen debut, a role whose Jehovah-addressed internal monologues recall (in less histrionic form) Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves.

Their spiritual and physical travails are imaginatively framed by cinematographer Adam Scarth, whose sole previous feature credit is another fine current Brit indie, Daphne. Heads are often presented in the lower half of the image, counterpointed with open space (where God resides?) and the details of the confining environments in which their lives play out. Interiors are usually half-lit, with blinds and curtains drawn, shades of brown and orange contributing to the stultifying, sometimes suffocating atmosphere; composer/sound-designer Matthew Wilcock's immersive audioscapes and low-key score play their part too.

While undeniably critical in tone and ultimately sympathetic with Luisa's increasingly spiky rebelliousness, Apostasy takes appropriate care to show balanced respect for Jehovah's Witness beliefs, and speaks to much wider issues of fundamentalism, institutional repression and individual free will. It's a timely, sensitive and intelligent work of cinema for which opportunity will now surely knock.

Production companies: Frank & Lively Productions, Saddleworth Films
Cast: Siobhan Finneran, Molly Wright, Sacha Parkinson, Robert Emms
Director / Screenwriter: Daniel Kokotajlo
Producers: Marcie MacLellan, Andrea Cornwell
Cinematographer: Adam Scarth
Production designer: John Ellis
Costume designer: Lance Milligan
Editor: Napoleon Stratogiannakis
Composer: Matthew Wilcock
Casting director: Michelle Smith
Venue: San Sebastian International Film Festival (New Directors Competition)
Sales: Cornerstone Films, London
In English (and Urdu)
No Rating, 95 minutes