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Film review: The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Confession, Amulet

by
04 February 2022

Stephen Brown on a tele-evangelist biopic, and other ministries

Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield as Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield as Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye

THE film The Eyes Of Tammy Faye (Cert. 12A) chronicles the life of the late Tammy Faye and her then husband, Jim Bakker, who, in their time, attracted more than 120 million viewers a year to the PTL Club television shows. Jim (played by Andrew Garfield) preached a gospel of prosperity. “God’s hope is that we thrive, not want to be poor.”

It is clear how appealing a get-rich-quick religion was. The film portrays Tammy (Jessica Chastain) and Jim as genuine enough, while swiftly embracing the opulent lifestyle of their mentors. At first, they are under the wing of the tele-evangelist Pat Robertson, whose home sports gold lavatory seats, and whose wife wears a thick mink coat at the height of summer. Jerry Falwell, another high-profile conservative pastor and founder of the Moral Majority organisation, backs them.

Tammy, in particular, brings a splash of colour to religious programmes formerly dominated by men in suits. Her musicality and puppet ministry endear her to the public. Jim’s ambitions range from creating a lucrative Christian theme park to organising overseas missions. Funding arrangements are suspect, eventually culminating in his being indicted for creaming off more than $1 million of on-air donations for himself.

Tammy seems unconcerned by the accumulated wealth surrounding her, seeing it as God’s bountiful goodness towards their ministry. Only her devout mother, Rachel (Cherry Jones), raises pertinent questions about this. A dour manner and lack of overt affection make her seem an unsympathetic character. In reality, she is a concerned parent. Appalled at Tammy’s gaudy affluence, she tells her: “Serving God don’t feel like it should be a money-making opportunity!”

While Jim gets plenty of screen time, it is essentially Tammy’s picture. Jessica Chastain manages to hold the balance between the ditzy, over-the-top performer (resplendent in trademark indelible mascara) and a shrewd and yet caring business operator. Her inimitable singing style and sense of fun win hearts and minds for Jesus even when daring to combine old-time religious fervour with topics such as erectile dysfunction and the championing of gay Christians. The latter activity leads to crossing swords with the religious Right. Falwell orders Bakker to restrain his wife’s enthusiasms, but to no avail.

The marriage is already under threat for several reasons. Tammy’s craving for attention off-screen as well as on television knows no bounds. Jim’s own behaviour is far from epitomising the Christian morals that he publicly upholds. It is a familiar enough tale of how the mighty are fallen.

There have been earlier television movies and documentaries about Tammy. This film is an attempt to rectify previous media representations of a conniving, good-time girl with the caricature of a face. We see how generous and vulnerable she was. Chastain carries her through youthful vigour to old age in a convincing performance.

Nevertheless, the film occasionally dips into hagiography, rarely asking whether we are dealing with a saint or a sinner when, like the rest of us, she has something of both. As Tammy says, “We’re all just people made out of the same old dirt. And God didn’t make any junk.”

On release in cinemas.

 

THERE aren’t that many films set entirely in one space. 12 Angry Men and Dial M for Murder get close to doing so, and the 2010 film Buried has a man spending the entire time in a coffin. Confession (Cert. 15) restricts itself to a place of worship. St Mary Magdalene’s, Debenham, in Suffolk, doubles for a Roman Catholic church in Massachusetts.

Stephen Moyer as Victor Strong and Colm Meaney as Father Peter in Confession

Having said evening prayers, Father Peter (Colm Meaney, Con Air) is about to lock up when an armed man, bleeding profusely, bursts in. He is Victor Strong (Stephen Moyer, True Blood), who wants to make his confession with regard to his wife, murdered some time ago, and the teenage daughter whom he hasn’t seen for years. First, the priest binds up the wound as best as he can, having been forbidden at gunpoint to call a hospital. Victor may not have much time to live, but it doesn’t stop him expending much energy barking out orders and, in a most circuitous way, telling Peter the whole story.

Or is it? Lurking in the vestry is a cop, Willow (Clare-Hope Ashitey, Doctor Foster, Riviera), also injured. She quietly texts for back-up. It all turns into one great dark night of the soul for the three of them. The priest, as well as Victor, has had his demons. He recalls his own experiences in an attempt to assure the penitent how forgiveness heals us. “It’s what faith is all about,” he cries. Willow, when she reveals her presence, is just as enigmatic a character as the man she is hunting down. She, too, may have her secrets, but that’s the way they’ll stay.

Instead of their having some ability to release one another from their nightly fears and fantasies, this is a case of hell being other people. In Sartre’s Huis Clos (No Exit), three characters struggle to understand what has led them to this point of despair. Confession explores similar territory. Can we reclaim our true selves, and do other people’s perceptions of us hinder or assist the process?

If the priest already has committed himself, by the mercy of God, to making that journey of discovery, it continues to have its difficulties. Victor has done the equivalent of confessing to stealing a rope, but has so far neglected to mention the horse on the end of it. In a display of moral superiority, Willow, it would seem, has no time for self-examination.

The writer-director David Beton, who also played a significant part in the screenplay for The Banishing (Arts, 30 April 2021), sets up a series of fascinating paradoxes. The trouble starts with the barely credible twists and turns that he produces in his efforts to bring about closure. He doesn’t do himself any favours by confining action to one setting. It takes a great deal of cinematic prowess to make that work aesthetically. And one is also left wondering why the story needed a New England setting, given its non-American cast. Beton’s visions of heaven, hell, and purgatory require a universality transcending any geographical limitations.
Released on digital platforms and DVD.

 

 

AMULET (Cert. 15) is a film brimming with ideas — probably too many. One of its main themes is religion and who benefits from it. Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton), a nun, comes to the rescue of Tomas (Alec Secareanu: God’s Own Country). This ex-soldier from a European war now works as a builder in Britain. A fire at his squat robs him of money and books, besides causing injury.

Imelda Staunton as Sister Claire in Amulet

The hospital refers him to a church where Sister Claire works. She relocates him with Magda (Carla Juri: Blade Runner: 2049) and her dying mother. There is something strange about the inhabitants and the dilapidated house itself.

Interspersed with how things proceed is a back-story in which Tomas is on guard duty at a heavily wooded checkpoint. Whiling away his lonely, bored existence, he comes across a statuette of a woman with a headdress, which he recognises as an amulet, a charm against evil. A subsequent flashback is of a woman desperately trying to rush past Tomas in a bid to cross the border into safety. Something of that encounter has traumatised Tomas — which is revealed only later.

Back in London, he sets about renovating this broken-down house. In the process, he becomes aware that it is no ordinary mother in the attic. Her agony is more than just physical. It is apparent that she is demonically possessed. Just when the film seems to be turning into a routine dark-at-the-top-of-the-stairs narrative, lots of other storylines begin to emerge. We might have guessed that not everything is what it seems. In a house without electricity, light bulbs flicker. Rescue comes from an unexpected source.

And the nun turns out to be far more complicated than was initially thought. Sister Claire’s place in all the turmoil is key to everything else. There is a progression with each scene from her personifying submission to the strictures of mother Church to being a straight-talking guardian of truth, prepared to stare evil in the face and divest herself of ecclesiastical oppression. When Tomas seeks comfort from her, she says that the Church is not a sanctuary: it’s a crucible. Sister Claire questions the way in which he has “re-categorised” his war crimes mentally as mere failures to prevent harm to people.

Like Sister Claire, Magda sees through Tomas’s attempts to exonerate himself. We see him reading Hannah Arendt’s On Violence. She challenges him to turn the philosopher’s ideas into action, and quotes Hildegard of Bingen: “Dare to declare who you are. . . You must be prepared to leap.” The very maleness of the way in which he approaches life restricts his perception of how God’s forgiveness works.

This is an ambitious film with multiple layers of complexity from the actor-turned-director Romola Garai (Atonement, Amazing Grace). At first sight, her screenplay could be mistaken for a one-dimensional horror-fest. It is easy to see how the visual language of directors such as David Cronenberg (Shivers) and Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) as well as Italy’s giallo slasher movies have influenced it.

Nevertheless, there is a wealth of spiritual themes exploring the nature of evil and the amulets necessary to contain it. Horror is only the fairground barker’s pitch to entice you into taking the ride.

On release in cinemas.

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