Director: Remi Weekes
Stars: Wunmi Mosaku, Sope Dirisu, Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba
Remi Weekes’ film, new to Netflix, turns the apprehensions and traumas of two refugees arriving on UK soil into the stuff of empathetic nightmares. It’s an odd but welcome get for the streaming service, which more often trades in the kind of louder, brighter material that can be absorbed by osmosis while doom-scrolling social media. His House, in contrast, requests your attention and rewards if you’re prepared to give it.
Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) and Bol (Sope Dirisu) barely made it to our shores from the South Sudan, and lost a child along the way, rocked from their crowded lifeboat into the dark, roiling mass of the ocean. This alone would be enough to haunt them (and it does, for reasons one might not expect). But the film further examines their situation as strangers in a strange land. Housed in an inauspicious London suburb marked by its own poverty and decline, the pair are to adhere to a number of limiting rules to pass their probationary period. No friends allowed. No jobs. No noise. £74 a week to live on. Their new home is a rundown terrace house in a shabby project. The local indigenous population are by turns charitable and downright inhospitable.
The world outside may be unfamiliar and coded with social short-hands unknown to Rial and Bol, but their grimy new home holds its own dark secrets. Bol becomes obsessed with redecorating the living room following a number of eerie encounters, the most blunt-force of which invokes their tragic loss at sea. The wilting wallpaper conjures memories of the hotter’n hell hotel from the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink (still that duo’s most sinister work), but more frequently the ghoulish sense of dread entwined in the location here brings to mind the colder anxieties of J-horror and – coincidentally – Natalie Erika James’ Australian chiller Relic which is also released this week. This idea of an environment reflecting back a person’s own turmoil is evidently heavy in the air right now – even before the tense imprisonment of lockdown changed our relationships to our homes forever.
Rial is the more superstitious of the two – and Bol derides her for her fancies – but it is he who is most often plagued by the threatening spirits that lurk and scamper as the pair struggle to make the best of things. Weekes is a dab-hand at bringing the spooky, with figures appearing out of shadow or darting past door frames, but the film comes alive in the moments that are less beholden to the tricks of, for instance, the Conjuring universe.
Weekes excels both in establishing a sense of ordinary horror (getting lost trying to find a clinic, being misunderstood by officials) and in sequences that don’t just interrupt the film’s reality, but break it down completely. In one virtuoso sequence, Weekes pans out from Bol at the dinner table to reveal him marooned at sea with the ghouls of the past in attendance. This dreamy collapse transitions His House into a more fluid and tricky second half as Bol’s worst fears start to manifest and awful secrets literally burst from the woodwork.
Bol challenges the ghosts of the past, determined to make a success of their new life, but this only encourages more vivid onslaughts. Soon, a wedge is driven between the couple as their ideals are forced apart by the malevolent forces around them. Matt Smith makes scant appearances as one of the faces of The System – the one that threatens to return the pair to detention – but this is Mosaku and Dirisu’s film to share and occupy. They are both excellent (for anyone interested in Mosaku’s prior work, she has shared screen time with Smith before, in the short-lived, supernaturally-tinged BBC drama mini-series, Moses Jones).
“Why don’t you just leave?” a nosy neighbour asks Bol, following such impertinence with, “I’ll give it a week.” His House depicts a couple in extremely fraught and specific circumstances, dealing not only with their own displacement and loss, but also with the grinding pressures of being made to feel foreign in the truest sense of the word. Foreign from their immediate surroundings and, as events escalate, foreign from one anther. Weekes conjures ghosts and visions as fantastic expressions of the weight of such extreme change and sacrifice. The goal is to help us understand the emotional toll of risking everything to simply keep on existing. The enormity of that.
Late stage flashbacks reveal to us the horrors of the circumstances Bol and Rial left behind. As daunting and dreary as England may seem, Weekes makes a point of underscoring how untenable the alternative truly can be, and how acts of desperation can be the most haunting things of all.