'The Other Lamb': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
Hitting a sweet spot between 'The Handmaid’s Tale' and cult horror.

The blind faith of a teenager begins to waver in Malgorzata Szumowska’s visionary tale about an all-female religious sect.

In The Other Lamb, the first English language picture from award-winning Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska, an all-female religious cult lives off the land with their daughters in the happy harem of a Jesus-like leader. Entrusting their bodies, souls and very lives to the handsome, long-haired Shepherd, they are content to follow the strict rules he lays down, however implausible they may be. But there are doubters in the flock.

Starring bold young English actress Raffey Cassidy as the trusting Selah, on the cusp of womanhood, and the romantic Dutch actor Michiel Huisman as Shepherd, this Ireland-Belgium co-production from Trust Nordisk has a different kind of potential compared to the director’s previous work. For one thing, it premiered in Toronto as a Special Presentation, breaking the chain of wins Szumowska has had in her Berlin bows. (In the Name Of took home the Teddy Award in 2013, Body won the best director nod and last year’s Mug got the jury grand prix.) While still a festival film, The Other Lamb is probably her most accessible work, and not just because it was shot in English. It can count on the perennial appeal of religious cults (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the most recent example), while its theme of oppressed women who rebel against male exploitation is of the minute.

Catherine S. McMullen’s screenplay is set in a timeless forest cloaked in mist where the characters have no contact with the modern world. This fairy-tale setting is heightened by Michal Englert’s mystical cinematography and the women’s ancient faces, dress and hairstyles.

Two blond girls with tightly braided hair and long blue dresses sport in the woods like nymphs as they watch over a small flock of sheep. They themselves are like sheep, belonging to a group called the Flock under the unquestioned authority of the sole male, Shepherd (the commanding Huisman). Some eight older women, all dressed in modest red homespun dresses, are the Wives; another eight in identical blue dresses are the Daughters. We see them at their communal evening meal, presided over by the hypnotic Shepherd. At the end, he walks behind the Wives, his hand hovering over their necks, until he selects one for his bed that night. “Do you accept my grace?” he asks her and she, knowing the formula, meekly replies, “I do, Shepherd.”

In another collective scene, all the women wear spotless white robes and stand within a sacred space in the forest, while they listen to Shepherd preaching about how he gave them shelter, sisterhood and life when they came to him hurt and broken and impure. Then he smears their cheeks with the blood of a slaughtered lamb. The women are completely into him and scream in joyful hysteria. In spirit, this may be closer to the masculine fantasy of Fellini’s than to a devil cult, but its perversity turns the stomach.

Selah (Cassidy) stands out from the group of Daughters for her wild-eyed beauty and early signs of rebellion. Her mother is not in the group, having died giving birth to her, and she plies the older Sarah (Denise Gough) with questions about her parent. Sarah is the pariah of the sisterhood, forced to live in a separate hut and completely ignored by Shepherd. “There’s only one ram in the flock, child,” she informs Selah. Gough’s edgy anger and disillusionment give Sarah the closest thing to a normal reaction.   

The rest of the women live in a delusional world they seem powerless to escape. The older wives, past child-bearing age, feel resentful that Shepherd no longer chooses them for his “grace,” while the younger ones preen. And Shepherd has his eyes on Selah. Although she is his own daughter, he lets her watch him while the women wash his body and while he beds them. It seems inevitable that she will soon become one of the Wives.

The spell is broken, or at least interrupted, when a police car appears at their camp and orders Shepherd to move on. The final sequences describe their long march on foot over hill and dale in search of a new promised land. The hardships of the journey not only test their faith, but bring out Shepherd’s true colors, which are far from heavenly. In one chilling moment, they trudges close to a road and Selah sees a girl who looks very much like herself riding by in a car, wearing a varsity jacket. A normal schoolgirl — who might have been herself.

Malgorzata’s command of her medium makes the film a pleasure to watch, from Englert’s stylized cinematography that creates a faux-medieval atmosphere, to Pawel Mykietyn and Rafael Leloup’s majestic musical accompaniment, that leaves room for an unexpected pop song played loud.

Production companies: Rumble Films, Subotica Productions in association with Zentropa
Cast: Raffey Cassidy, Michiel Huisman, Denise Gough, Kelly Campbell, Eve Connolly, Isabelle Connolly, Ailbhe Cowley, Charlotte Moore, Juliette Crosbie

Director: Malgorzata Szumowska
Screenwriter: Catherine S. McMullen
Producers: Stephanie Wilcox, David Lancaster, Aoife O’Sullivan, Tristan Orpen Lynch, Marie Gade Denesson
Director of photography: Michal Englert
Production designer: Ferdia Murphy
Editor: Jaroslaw Kaminski
Music: Pawel Mykietyn, Rafael Leloup
Casting director: Amy Rowan
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentation)
World sales: TrustNordisk

97 minutes