Director: Małgorzata Szumowska
Stars: Raffey Cassidy, Denise Gough, Michiel Huisman
There are a couple of notable firsts happening in Małgorzata Szumowska’s new folk-horror, which has arrived on MUBI. It marks the Polish director’s English-language debut, immediately making her work more accessible to UK audiences. And, in addition, it marks the first time Raffey Cassidy has taken a credited lead role, having previously proven herself a clear highlight in both Yorgos Lanthimos‘ The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux (in which she technically put in more screen time than anyone).
But what does Szumowska make of her? The Other Lamb takes place at a remote commune in the midst of a bleak midwinter, cloistered among dying trees on the hills of some endless moorland. This chilly landscape is overseen by Michiel Huisman’s leader Shepherd; a man of many wives and, seemingly, only daughters (eerily bringing to mind John Hawkes’ opportunistic figurehead from Martha Marcy May Marlene). His women are The Flock.
Teenage daughter Selah (Cassidy) is favoured among the young women, though she has not yet had her first period; something indoctrinated as being, by nature, unclean. When it comes, this event – which coincides with the portentous premature birth of a lamb – triggers in Selah a kind of awakening from Shepherd’s thrall. She begins to reevaluate her circumstances, and the sometimes cruel practices which she previously perceived as merely routine. When the group are evicted from their land, Shepherd casts the news as an opportunity, but Selah is troubled.
Szumowska makes outstanding use of the location shooting in Ireland, and is absurdly well-blessed in the stark landscapes her team have helped her find as backdrop to this icy cult drama. The siting of an isolated shack on a hillside of diagonally protruding trees is enough to take your breath away; as though the very land were conspiring to tell Selah that her world is literally off-kilter. In an equally striking design choice, Shepherd cordons off areas of the forest for worship with the winding of string around the barren tree trunks. It’s perhaps a rather brazen visual metaphor for the feminine imprisonment at the heart of Szumowska’s piece, but on an aesthetic level it is undoubtedly striking. Colour-coded costuming also pops against the often pallid backdrops. Red for the wives, blue for the daughters; something which harks back to M Night Shyamalan’s own folk-horror The Village.
The iciness of the landscape is matched in the stiff visual majesty with which Szumowska and her DP Michal Englert bring this story to bear, evoking most fervently Robert Eggers’ The Witch. The music is also reminiscent of Mark Korven’s work for that project, further prompting this association. There’s a keenness here to conflate burgeoning womanhood not with occult potentiality, however, but instead with more sinister bloodletting and the cruelties of the natural world. It’s a pretty grim motif that only folds into Shepherd’s evident suspicion and hatred of his company. There’s a lot of stifled emotion, befitting of the frigid climate and themes of repression. This also means, however, that the actors are all rather rigid and remote. Cassidy is mostly given little to do other than show us a variety of stern or incredulous looks. She’s all eyes in this one.
“Why do you stay?” Selah asks Sarah (Denise Gough), one of the mistreated wives, and it’s a question that bugs throughout the picture when applied to all of its characters, irrespective of Sarah’s answer. Shepherd’s power over these women is rather woolly (pardon the pun). Perhaps Huisman’s part is underwritten but, as a contemporary story, The Other Lamb feels a little anachronistic. We’re offered little in the way of good reason for any of them to be in this predicament. Without this, the whole scenario comes rather too close to falling apart. The Flock’s beliefs and objectives are unclear. If the purpose of this is for us to imprint our own ideas or meanings onto the cult, the outcome instead feels ill-thought-out or perhaps just poorly communicated. These women aren’t unaware of the modern world. Shepherd beats a woman then turns to his congregation and says, “We must have faith”. Why any of them follow him another step isn’t really made tangible.
The paucity of dialogue may intend to echo the sparseness of their lives and the sullen hold Shepherd has over them, but without voices these women communicate little. Their histories, their hopes, their choices… all feel unknowable. Any feminist clout the piece might have had feels as though it’s been expunged. All that remains is dour misogyny and an ending that takes aim for enigmatic, but instead hits as both dreadfully mean-spirited and daft.
With it’s landscapes and choice lighting and framing, The Other Lamb is often quite beautiful, but on a fundamental storytelling level it doesn’t give enough, and the ugliness of what it does give doesn’t nearly satisfy, making it feel like one of the year’s most impeccably crafted missed opportunities.