Director/writer: Daniel Kokotajlo
Cast: Siobhan Finneran, Sacha Parkinson, Molly Wright, Robert Emms
96 mins, 2018, UK
Siobhan Finneran is outstanding in this gripping, harrowing drama about a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Manchester – a woman and her two daughters – who are destroyed by their own community.
Ever since I took Muffet to see Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not a Witch (see below: Ismay and I thought it was amazingly brilliant), which upset her deeply and gave her troubled dreams, I have tried to be careful about which films I suggest we go and see together. In the Watershed foyer, waiting for the lift to take us up to the first floor to see Apostasy, I turned to Muffet and said, well, I’m not sure what this is going to be like, but at least it’s not going to be harrowing.
How wrong I was!
I blame Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian for not being quite clear enough about the plot. I thought it was going to be about someone who becomes an apostate and escapes the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Yes, that does happen, but the film focuses on the woman who does NOT apostasise, the mother who loses her two daughters because of her desperate belief in Jehovah and his promise of post-Armageddon salvation for the Witnesses.
For those of you who haven’t yet seen it, this is what happens: the younger daughter, Alex, aged 18, is persuaded by her mother Ivanna to sign a medical form refusing a blood transfusion. She dies. Her older sister Luisa becomes pregnant and is ‘disfellowshipped’ by the community. No-one is allowed to speak to her or even look at her. Ivanna asks the ‘elders’ – a very nasty bunch of bullying men – if she can help Luisa in her pregnancy. They tell her to keep ‘any necessary contact to a bare minimum’. Luisa bears and gives birth to her baby without a single loving word or kind touch from anyone, while being obliged to undergo so-called guidance sessions with the loathsome ‘elders’. Ivanna chooses her faith over her surviving daughter and baby granddaughter.
Director/writer Daniel Kokotajlo is a former Jehovah’s Witness. He portrays a community that is harsh, joyless, punitive, vindictive, and profoundly misogynistic. Or, as Muffet put it, completely frightful. However, when I pushed Muffet on the qualities of the film rather than the community it portrayed, she admitted that it was gripping, and said it was very well-acted, especially the mother, who was very good indeed.
What lies in Ivanna’s past? We don’t know, but Siobhan Finneran makes us believe in something deeply conflicted, deeply repressed. Molly Wright as Alex and Sacha Parkinson as rebel Luisa are also excellent, as is Robert Emms who plays the initially open-hearted young man who is all too quickly subsumed into the ranks of the men in charge.
Thinking about it now, I realise there are distinct parallels between this film and I Am Not a Witch.
On the way home afterwards Muffet said she felt in need of a stiff whisky. I felt rather the same.