'Iona': Film Review

Courtesy of Edinburgh International Film Festival
Slow cinema by numbers, adding up to zero.

Ruth Negga stars in writer-director Scott Graham's U.K.-Germany co-production, set on a remote Scottish island.

A textbook example of the dreaded sophomore slump, Scott Graham's Iona is a painfully mannered follow-up to his well-received 2012 debut Shell. A studiously protracted and cumulatively tedious study of guilt, forbidden passion and redemption that works best as a showcase for Agents of SHIELD's appealingly empathetic Ruth Negga, it premiered as the dispiritingly downbeat closing film at Edinburgh in June and next contends for San Sebastian's lucrative New Directors. Further international bookings may follow for a picture which adheres obediently to prevailing slow cinema trends, and whose stilted dialogue will play best to those for whom English isn't a first language. U.K. distribution rights for this British-German co-production were picked up by London's Verve Pictures prior to the Edinburgh bow, but no date has yet been set for what appears to be a very dicey commercial prospect given the current arthouse climate.

Shell, an intimate study of a teenage girl and her father living in a remote Scottish valley, picked up a BAFTA nomination for Outstanding British Debut along with three prizes at the respectably edgy Torino Film Festival. Writer-director Graham's focus is once again on the emotional life of a female protagonist, with Negga's Iona escaping a dysfunctional domestic situation thanks to the violent first-reel intercession of her teenage son, Billy (Ben Gallagher). Fleeing the possible attentions of the law, Iona and the poutingly surly Billy — also (amusingly) known, for unspecified reasons, by the nickname 'Bull' — head to the remote island of her birth, after which she was named. Her unexpected arrival dredges up all manner of complications from her past — most of them involving her former lover Daniel (Douglas Henshall) and his daughter Elisabeth (Michelle Duncan), previously Iona's best friend.

Amid various soapy intrigues, the introverted Billy edges — much to Elisabeth's chagrin — towards a romantic relationship with Elisabeth's daughter Sarah (Sorcha Groundsell), the latter a paraplegic who is carried around on people's shoulders rather than using a wheelchair. Are such concomitants of the modern world somehow verboten on an island known for being the home of a contemplative religious community? Are telephones and medical care also shunned, as seems the case when a major character suddenly collapses — out of the blue — and expires shortly after.

Iona is the kind of film where one is clearly not supposed to ask "why?" too often. Instead the viewer is invited to succumb to a carefully-modulated atmosphere of ponderous, delicate intensity. The actors are solid, Yoliswa von Dallwitz's cinematography fine, the locations breathtaking and Graham's intentions are palpably serious — but none of this comes anywhere near close to compensating for basic, even embarrassing deficiencies in the areas of characterization and dialogue, not to mention matters of plausible, coherent narrative development.

The real-life Iona is indeed a place of spiritual refuge — but that doesn't explain why none of the characters engage with anything beyond their own specific, domestic and social circumstances: nobody listens to music or radio, watches TV, talks about films or books, discusses politics, sports or the world beyond. Are they too bound up in their own constipated emotional cul-de-sacs? It's hard to know, and much harder to care.

So much rings tinnily false, contrived and hollow here, with directorial and screenwriting clichés in soul-numbing abundance — mealtimes, for example, are invariably an occasion for fork-twiddling, food-prodding and morsel-munching. Graham's habit of extending scenes for thirty or forty seconds beyond their logical conclusion — in cahoots with editor Florian Nonnenmacher — is an irksome tic which becomes cumulatively infuriating. He creates a soporifically static, two-dimensional world of glum, insufferable characters treating each other with chilly restraint or outright enmity — all the way up to climax that's clearly intended to be harrowingly tragic but which is so heavy-handed in its black irony that it becomes unintentionally comic.

Not that the denouement is unremittingly bleak: it's preceded by a very cinematic miracle in the Dreyer/Reygadas tradition, albeit one that's explicitly — and tastelessly — the consequence of an incestuous liaison. This is, in more than one sense, Breaking The Waves territory — such a shame that Iona should end up much closer to Philipp Groning's abortively self-conscious fiction-feature debut The Policeman's Wife (2013), even if the running-time is, mercifully, a full hour shorter.

Production company: Bard Entertainment

Cast: Ruth Negga, Tom Brooke, Douglas Henshall, Michelle Duncan, 

Sorcha Groundsell, Ben Gallacher

Director/Screenwriter: Scott Graham

Producer: Margaret Matheson

Cinematographer: Yoliswa von Dallwitz

Production designer: Stephen Mason

Costume designer: Jo Thompson

Editor: Florian Nonnenmacher

Casting: Orla O'Connor

Sales: Bard Entertainment, London

No Rating, 110 minutes