British director Chris Newby is not a name many cinephiles will be familiar with. His credits include only a handful of short films and two features in the mid-1990s. Which is a pity because, having seen the new BFI DVD release of his 1993 religious drama, Anchoress, Newby shows he has an eye for the sublime.
Anchoress (a kind of religious hermit) is inspired by the true story of Christine Carpenter – a young Surrey woman who, having had a vision of Our Lady in 1329, locked herself away in a cell in a church in Shere in order to devote her life to prayer.
Newby’s film is serenely beautiful to look at thanks to Michel Baudour’s stunning black and white cinematography, while the production design faithfully recreates medieval rural Britain – in Belgium. But Newby’s direction is painfully slow and the bare, joyless script stunts the actors.
Natalie Morse plays the young Christine as though she was a posing for a painting. She’s great to look at, but her portrayal lacks the emotional depth it needs for us to believe in her – unlike Jennifer Jones’ award-winning performance in the 1947 epic The Song of Bernadette. Meanwhile, Christopher Eccleston (aka the 9th Doctor) gives a wooden performance as the hypocritical local priest who counsels the young martyr then accuses her mother (Toyah Willcox in a standout role) of witchcraft.
Indeed, one of the central themes of the film is the suppression of women by the Church, but Newby’s slow pacing prevents the viewer from ever fully engaging in the film. Maybe a ruthless editor and a Michael Nyman-esque soundtrack would have made it more than just an animated painting.
Nevertheless, Newby’s vision is unique – ably demonstrated by the three shorts that accompany the DVD release (The Old Man and the Sea being the best). But, in a society where attention spans are size of sound bites, this release will probably only be seen by film students. But if you can handle a Robert Bresson or Ingmar Bergman film, then Newby’s your man.
Released 22 June