For her English langauge feature debut, acclaimed Polish director Małgorzata Szumowska takes a turn into creepy folk horror. The Other Lamb is released in the middle of a purple patch for Szumowska, following award-winning drama Mug – it picked up the Silver Bear prize at Berlin Film Festival 2018 – and ahead of forthcoming dark satire Never Gonna Snow Again.
Adolescent Selah (Raffey Cassidy, Vox Lux, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) is part of a secretive all-female woodland cult led by the Shepherd (Michiel Huisman, Game of Thrones, The Invitation). The women have been divided by the Shepherd into “wives”, with the children – presumably the children of the Shepherd and the wives – named “sisters”. All the women live such a closed-off and controlled life that, in true cult fashion, they know nothing of the outside world. All of their knowledge comes from the Shepherd, to the extent that the women censor and castigate each other for tiny infractions of the rules. Though the quiet, rural surroundings suggest peace and tranquillity, the world Szumowska builds starts off unsettling and soon turns sinister. The women are the sexual property and servants of the Shepherd – and as the wives get older, he discards them before moving on to the children as they come of age. Selah is set on a course for rebellion and things soon take a violent turn.
Szumowska and her cast have created a sparse film in more ways than one. Cassidy and Huisman offer decent performances, with Denise Gough the strongest of the supporting women, but the dialogue is rather minimal, much like the wild landscapes the cult traipse through in the film’s final act. There is nothing wrong with this less-is-more approach but it can make the movie feel a touch empty. Still, the verdant Irish locations shot by Michał Englert are aesthetically pleasing and give the film a suitably earthy feel, while there are also some intriguing puzzles to ensure things aren’t too still and quiet. What, exactly, is Selah’s back story? She has visions, nightmares perhaps. In one scene, she’s pictured in a car in normal clothes – a world away from the old-fashioned garments worn by the cult women. There are hints of her old, normal life, tempting but so far way.
As folk horror goes, The Other Lamb is a subtle beast. While there are some startling moments of violence and a few unpleasant surprises, there is perhaps nothing quite as shocking as one might expect from classics of the genre such as The Wicker Man or even brilliant new entries like Midsommar. That said, Szumowska has made an interesting piece about masculinity at its very worst that, conversely, is at its best when Selah fights back against the toxic patriarchy. One for serious contemplation rather than frivolous fun.
- Director: Malgorzata Szumowska
- Starring: Raffey Cassidy, Michiel Huisman, Mallory Adams
- Release date: October 16 (MUBI and selected cinemas)