★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
Striking visuals and strong lead performances highlight this slow-burning feminist parable that is punctuated by sudden visions of violence and a somber atmosphere.
Directed by Malgorzata Szumowska
Ireland/Belgium/USA coproduction The Other Lamb, the first English-language film from Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska, is one of the most visually splendid films you are likely to see this year. It is also a strange beast, offering both rewards and frustrations to patient viewers.
As a big fan of slow-burn and art house horror films, I can attest that The Other Lamb will try the patience of many a viewer. This one relies heavily on maintaining a brooding atmosphere, and though there are occasional chilling teases of what may come in the form of either sequences from dreams or prophetic visions from its main character Selah (Raffey Cassidy of Vox Lux and The Killing of a Sacred Deer), much of the horror either seethes just below the surface or is held in check until the third act.
That previous point is debatable, however, depending on how much one reads into and speculates early on about the lives of the women belonging to a religious cult led by the sole man in the bunch, Shepherd (Michiel Huisman of The Invitation and The Haunting of Hill House television series). On the surface, viewers can see that all is not well with the women — who are divided into two groups: wives and daughters — and that part of that is because of Shepherd’s dominant hold over them, while their own competition and bickering over being favored by him holds them down.
Selah is the audience surrogate, putting puzzle pieces together and sensing that all is not right with her world. She is a girl on the edge of puberty, and once she crosses that line and begins menstruating, her status will change from daughter to wife, with all that that entails and implies regarding her relationship with Shepherd.
Cassidy is outstanding, relying on a mostly visual performance including facial expressions and long stares at Shepherd that express her character’s seething and suspicion that she is trying to keep hidden while figuring things out. Huisman is impressive, too, playing his leader/con man/charlatan role in an understated manner. The supporting cast members all turn in solid performances.
Szumowska, working from a screenplay by C.S. McMullen, has a top-notch eye for haunting images, breathtaking landscapes, and superb framing, all captured beautifully by cinematographer Michal Englert (The Congress; Dark Crimes). The pacing asks a bit much of viewers at times, and a payoff shot at the climax might have have had a bit stronger effect if it was lingered on and displayed more clearly, but as I alluded to earlier, The Other Lamb is more reliant on tone and atmosphere than in-your-face horror shots (though viewers can expect a few quick doozies).
As a feminist parable, The Other Lamb is reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale, and arrives at a time when other feminist horror outings such as Swallow (reviewed here) and The Invisible Man (reviewed here) are getting plenty of notice. Szumowska’s film offers much to mull over with its feminist takes, and is the type of film that will spark a good deal of discussion regarding both its themes and execution.
The Other Lamb, from IFC Midnight, is scheduled for April 3 release in select cinemas and on VOD and digital platforms.