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Film review: The Banishing

30 April 2021

Stephen Brown reviews a film inspired by Borley

From left: Anya McKenna-Bruce, Jessica Brown Findlay, John Heffernan, and Sean Harris in The Banishing

From left: Anya McKenna-Bruce, Jessica Brown Findlay, John Heffernan, and Sean Harris in The Banishing

IMAGINE, if you can, a situation in which a mendacious bishop places an unsuspecting young priest in a parish that harbours a dreadful legacy. That is what occurs in The Banishing (Cert.15).

Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay) and her young daughter, Adelaide (Anya McKenna-Bruce), arrive at the huge Essex vicarage, where the Revd Linus Forster (John Heffernan) is already living. Hitler’s territorial ambitions may threaten world peace, but, at the family level, all seems well. Gradually, we realise that the place houses dark secrets. So do the residents.

Adelaide, it transpires, was illegitimate. Shame drove Marianne into a mental institution before Linus rescued and married her. The film’s prelude has him desperately rifling through an old Bible, seizing on 1 Thessalonians 4.3: “For this is God’s will, for your sanctification; that you avoid sexual immorality.” Not only is this translation anachronistic (the Authorised Version it certainly isn’t), but which theological college would teach Linus to equate sexual immorality with connubial love-making? Whatever the reason, he cannot bring himself to engage in it with Marianne.

Something begins possessing Adelaide. She claims that another inhabitant is her mother. The haunted-house theme of many a movie emerges. This one derives from a monastic foundation lying beneath the vicarage. A spiritual healer, Harry Reed (Sean Harris), tells the couple that a pregnant unmarried woman was tortured and executed here by Benedictine monks. She and her aborted child exact revenge on all who dwell therein.

The familiar ring to this scenario is because it is loosely based on the allegations regarding Borley Rectory in Essex, which are now generally regarded as discredited. From 1930 to 1936, the incumbent was the Revd Lionel Foyster, with a wife, Marianne, and daughter, Adelaide, At this time, the rectory gained the reputation of being “the most haunted house in the country” — as the psychic investigator Harry Price put it — thanks to the legend of a 14th-century Benedictine monastery on the site, where one of the monks was said to have had a sexual relationship with a nun, for which both were severely punished. It turned out that children of the Rectory had made this story up, and confirmation of this deception occurred in 1938 — no coincidence, perhaps; for this is the year in which The Banishing is set.

From left: Anya McKenna-Bruce, Jessica Brown Findlay and John Heffernan in The Banishing

Linus’s relationship with Malachi, his Bishop, is problematic. John Lynch turns in a stomach-churning performance as a Nazi-sympathising prelate. Capitalising on the meaning of his name, Messenger of God, he demands that Linus comply with his fascist perception of the divine will. Thus, ancient sins of the fathers are visited upon present company while they wrestle against spiritual wickedness in high places. Darkness over all the land (Tenebrae) contends with those striving to embrace the light.

The director, Christopher Smith, manages to side-step at least some clichés associated with this genre. That is attributable to the fine performances that he has drawn out of his players in telling a story that takes seriously how history informs and affects contemporary well-being. Good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. Thus, murder at the vicarage has widespread implications for a world going up in flames. War may be imminent, but if evil (including our own) is ever to be conquered, it will require the kind of creative mercy which we see on display here.

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