In He Said/She Said, critics Joe and Valeska dissect a film in a back and forth email exchange. Previously, we struggled to survive a cosmic horror invasion in The Beach House.
This time, we’re retreating into the past and venturing across the pond with Christopher Smith’s period ghost film, The Banishing.
Synopsis: A young reverend and his wife and daughter move into a manor with a horrifying secret. When a vengeful spirit haunts the little girl and threatens to tear the family apart, the reverend and his wife are forced to confront their beliefs. They must turn to black magic by seeking the help of a famous Occultist…or risk losing their daughter.
After a significant delay, I’m super happy that we’ve carved out time to reconnect and do another one of these! With that said, I do wish that the reunion was on a stronger film, as The Banishing falls firmly into “meh, it’s fine” territory for me.
Things start off on a promising note as we watch a Reverend discover a doppelgänger of himself brutally stabbing a woman before the title card pops up. It’s a striking image, one that The Banishing’s three screenwriters, David Beton, Ray Bogdanovich and Dean Lines, return to several times over the film’s 1 hr 40 minute runtime. It works because doubles are uncanny and visually memorable, although The Banishing tends to rely on this imagery a little too frequently.
The plot is about Linus (John Heffernan), the town’s new Reverend, his “fallen” wife Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay) and her daughter Adelaide (Anya McKenna-Bruce). The trio move into a dilapidated manor, and almost immediately they begin to suffer behavioural changes: Adelaide is haunted by visions of dark robed figures, Linus becomes a jealous drunkard who berates his wife and Marianne is gaslit by everyone except Occultist Harry Price (Sean Harris), who recommends leaving the house immediately.
The Banishing is plenty gorgeous to look at, particularly the ornate production design of the house, as well as Findlay’s stunning outfits by costume designer Lance Milligan. I was particularly taken with how her dresses complement the house’s floral wallpaper when she’s inside the house and set her apart from the drab townspeople when she ventures outside.
This latter element is integral to the success of the film, which at its heart is about misogyny and oppression. Not only is Marianne targeted for harassment by her husband, the Church — embodied by John Lynch’s Father Malachi — views her with contempt because she had a child out of wedlock.
Sadly, all of the intriguing feminist critique is overwhelmed by an unnecessary subplot involving the rise of Nazi fascism, the Church’s secret ties to Germany, the sordid history of the house and other nonsense. It’s overstuffed, which makes the languid (bordering on sleepy) pacing all the more confounding. There are so many elements at play here and yet somehow the film still feels 10-15 minutes too long!
But Valeska, I’m hogging the mic. What did you think of The Banishing? Did you connect to its feminist messaging? And what did you think of all of the mirror work and that creepy scene where multiple Mariannes are glued to the wall and left hovering off the floor?
I mean, you’ve said about all there is to say about the plot and pacing, so I want to focus for a bit on some of the fun elements.
First of all, hooray for casting my beloved Jessica Brown Findlay (AKA Lady Sybil of Downton Abbey — truly the greatest Crawley sister). The costuming throughout was pretty breathtaking. I enjoyed not only the hats and aforementioned dresses, but also the vintage undergarments. Marianne wears a fabulous girdle in one nighttime scene! The hair and makeup were also fantastic. I’d kill five men to have Marianne’s chic curly bob. (Sidenote: could I pull off a beret?)
I’ve always been fascinated by the fashion in the period spanning the mid-1920s up to Dior’s New Look, so there was always something on-screen to pique my interest, even in the moments when the plot may have flagged slightly. I do agree that the pacing was a bit sleepy at times, though I think the film held my attention a bit more effectively than it did yours.
In terms of mirrors, they are EVERYWHERE in this film. Not only in the literal panes of reflective glass so often haunted by phantoms, but also in the doppelgängers roaming the lonely hallways, the dolls representing and reenacting the transgressions of the past, and the tragic parallels between the characters’ lives. Marianne and the spectre woman both lose their babies to the Church and are imprisoned, though Marianne does manage to survive and overcome her experiences.
Overall, the new residents of the manor very nearly succumb to the same insidious evil as the prior residents. Even the Reverend’s sermon about violence begetting violence gestures towards a type of mirroring.
By the way, the scene with the multiple Mariannes was my absolute favourite part of the film, by the way. But you had to know that — it’s SO uniquely and exquisitely unsettling!
I really like a lot of the cinematographic choices, up to and including the Dutch angles. Sarah Cunningham just does excellent work throughout. (Though it may have been hard to make the film look TOO bad, as the Broughton Hall Estate is a truly beautiful manor.)
Let’s talk about sex. Did you pick up on any ace or queer subtext in terms of the Reverend’s disinterest (trepidation?) in responding to his wife’s advances? Or do you think it’s plain old religious repression? Also: at which point would you have said “hell no” and vacated the obviously haunted (albeit gorgeous) premises?
Oh, you could absolutely rock a beret!
Touching on the possibility of a queer or ace reading, that’s fascinating because it honestly hadn’t even crossed my mind. But if you think about it, Linus is so terrified of his wife’s body that it’s certainly a possibility. I would probably lean towards the latter, if only because the character seems resolutely disinterested in most everyone’s sexuality…although now that I’m thinking about it, Linus’ obsession with seeing his wife flirt with other men could be the first step towards a cuckolding scenario.
Whatever the case may be, if there was ever a character that we can say needs to get laid, Linus certainly fits the bill.
All this to say that with that wardrobe, those undergarments and that chic haircut, Marianne could easily do better than her milquetoast husband. If only she weren’t also contending with ghosts and a bratty child who causes her no shortage of grief!
As for when I would have abandoned the whole enterprise? I would have peaced out of the manor when Marianne is discovered cradling the non-existent body of the dead housekeeper by her annoyed husband. If something seems real enough to have you committing pantomime actions, it’s time to call the movers.
Ultimately The Banishing would have been better off simply focusing on the ways that the Church represses women rather than throwing in everything but the kitchen sink. The draggy middle bit didn’t keep my interest and the mirror world antics of the finale were a touch confusing (was Marianne re-living the other woman’s experiences when she was tied down by the Church members?)
With that said, if I’m thinking about the film’s strengths, I did quite like the burial scene that closes the movie. The simplicity of reuniting mother and daughter (and doll) in a grave has a quiet dignity that is befitting of this austere ghost story. I’m already imagining audiences clamouring for a more bombastic ending feeling dissatisfied, but this felt spot on.
As for Father Malachi absconding with the bones for the Reich? Ick…
Overall, I would recommend The Banishing to folks who are interested in a good-looking, albeit slightly sleepy ghost story. It’s a B- for me.
V, did you like all of the running through dark corridors in the finale? Is that final shot intended to be a sequel set-up? And what is your final grade for The Banishing?
I fully agree about appreciating the quiet, dignified climax. I don’t need to see CGI demons spewing out of people’s mouths and I’ve grown so tired of frantically edited exorcism scenes. Give me a low-key backyard burial and some closure and we’re GOOD. And, sure, throw in some dark corridor jogging — why not?
I will say that if Linus truly is ace, he does not need to get laid. But maybe he should talk to his wife.
I’m not sure how I’d feel about a sequel. I guess it would depend on the angle. I’m really not interested in exploring the Nazi ties, to be quite honest. But I would be interested in revisiting that spooky manor if the story were right, and if Cunningham and costume designer Milligan were on board. A girl can dream.
I’ll give The Banishing a B+. It’s worth a watch for the styling, cinematography, and outstandingly eerie imagery. If you’re into slow, supernatural period pieces, you could do a lot worse. And the things that the film does well, it does very well.
The Banishing is now available on Shudder
This column is crossed-posted to Anatomy Of A Scream