Chamber piece A Dark Song is a co-production of Ireland and the UK, written and directed by Welsh-Irish maestro Liam Gavin.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that the best “British” horrors are co-productions with Ireland, and sometimes more Irish than British.
It’s hard for me to work out where the line goes. Which of these dual-national films can be blogged about as 21st Century British Horror?
I’m happy to pass A Dark Song, because the closing credits describe it as an Irish/UK co-production and it’s set in Wales (in fact, Liam Gavin has rather charmingly described himself as “a walking co-production”). The story is carried by Steve Oram (an Englishman) and Catherine Walker (a Dubliner). The result is a remarkable debut. Partly because the concept is so novel, but also because the execution is first rate.
Let’s get to the film itself. Grieving mother Sophia rents a cottage to perform an occult ritual. Her mentor—freelance occultist Joseph Solomon—warns her that the task is non-trivial. “Done this three times,” he says frankly. “Once it worked, twice it didn’t.”
She’ll have to stay in the house for several months, following a gruelling regime set out in the Book of Abramelin. The prize? She’ll meet her guardian angel and speak to her dead son. We spend the rest of the film sealed in a magic circle with this unlikely pair, watching their antics with growing unease.
A story like this lives or dies on the strength of the actors, and Walker and Oram are equally (but differently) superb. Oram was an inspired choice; they could have taken the concept in a more obvious direction by casting someone hammy, with a faint air of devilry—maybe even a small goatee—as the occult sensei. Instead, Oram plays the part like a grumpy roadie, and the result is grounded and believable. Despite having ample fuel to see him as the villain, you might come to sympathise with him by the end. At the same time, Walker is excellent as Sophia, serving up a heady stew of grief, vulnerability, and bloody-mindedness that deserves high praise.
Aside from the interplay of two compelling characters, the first act is a masterclass in anticipation. The delicious setup mean we’re keen to see the ritual working, and the film shows much of it in gruelling detail. Aided by Solomon’s matter-of-fact commentary, we come to believe in the rites and really start rooting for magic to happen. The resulting film is a slow-burn, but the tension mounts nicely, leading to solid (and quite spine-tingly) set pieces. The conclusion is daring and almost risks being “too much”, but the quality of the film means it works—for this viewer, at least—and I give the film top marks for following through on the promise of the idea, rather than going for something safer and less satisfying (no one can accuse the finale of being a cop-out!).
In short, I strongly recommend A Dark Song and class it as one of the best British and Irish horror films of the century so far. Watch it yourself and see if you agree! Alternatively, check out these reviews from other WordPress sites: