The Silent Storm – London Film Festival

There are a rare few actors who I trust not only to deliver high-quality performances every time but whose careful judgement consistently selects projects that I will like. So with almost no thought at all, I can go to the cinema and be assured that whatever is screened I will enjoy. But there are lots more great actors who do a good job in a so-so or poor film.  There are a lot of reasons for that, sometimes good concepts just don’t translate to film, or projects are selected based on family commitments, availability or need to pay the mortgage. So whilst I think very highly of them as performers, I can’t always trust their taste.

Damien Lewis falls into this latter category, an actor whose ability can often be above the quality of the material he’s given and The Silent Storm is his latest offering written and directed by Corinne McFarlane. It’s the story of an extreme preacher, Balor, supporting a mining community on a remote Scottish Island before World War II, and his relationship with wife Aislin, locked into domestic slavery by her husband’s views. As the mine closes and the inhabitants migrate to the mainland, Fionn arrives at the preacher’s house to carry-out a form of community service, and needless to say a chaste affair with the entrapped Aislin ensues.

At best this is a really mixed bag, and at worst a total mess. Starting with the positives, the acting performances of the three leads are excellent even if the characterisation is ropey at times; Lewis is very impressive as the tightly wound Balor, utterly convincing as a zealot imposing his views on his community. He acts in a kind of frenzy which is compelling to watch, especially when pulling down his kirk by hand to rebuild it on the mainland – a sort of reverse idea to William Golding’s The Spire, but equally foolhardy. I loved how bleak the film felt in his presence and how much warmer it was when absent. Andrea Riseborough is also notable as the initially meek and cowering Aislin and new-comer Ross Anderson as Fionn is very engaging.

The scenes between Lewis and Riseborough are often tense and compelling so it’s a huge shame that somehow the plot just doesn’t deliver. It’s a rather hackneyed love triangle, with Lewis’s character conveniently disappearing mid-film to allow the others to spend time alone. In a manner that would make Beyonce’s head spin in less than five days Aislin goes from obedient wife to independent woman. Not forgetting that this is all set in the 1930s where of course women were free to run away from their husbands, get divorced and experience a near hippy lifestyle with their young lovers – good grasp of period detail there!

The cinematography is beautiful but it’s so often used to detract from a load of nonsense elsewhere – a prime example being Adore from last year’s festival which was utter garbage. There are some good ideas about God in Church and God in Nature, which although rather obviously drawn out, are quite interesting themes and potential insights into the husband and wife. There is so much in that relationship that could be explored and this is the huge missed opportunity of the film. Aislin is obedient but in Riseborough’s excellent performance, she is afraid of him yet still drawn to him.

I’m also going to say something quite shocking now so you may want to get a strong cup of tea and come back later – what if we brush the cliché aside, and Aislin and Fionn become friends, just friends. I know a man and a woman just being friends is an outrageous suggestion but that would have been more likely in this context. The director’s stated purpose is to make a point about the subjugation of women but having Aislin embark on an affair means she is entirely defined by her relationships with men, rather than having an ending either where she seeks complete independence or develops a more balanced relationship with her husband.

The plot and the characterisation aren’t well executed here as a result of a number of poor decisions. An interesting, bleak tone is later betrayed by a ridiculous happy fairy-tale-like ending that just doesn’t suit it, and the inclusion of a scene where Aislin and Fionn drug themselves and wander about the meadows is utterly ridiculous and misjudged. It probably all looked a lot better on paper, and I suspect that explains the support of Bond supremo producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson. I don’t agree with another viewer leaving the cinema who described it as ‘shockingly awful’, it’s not – the acting is superb and there are great elements, just not enough to make this worthwhile. It feels as though this film started with an agenda and wrapped the story around it, and that guides it away from better exploring the human relationships and extremities of character that should have been its focus. So next time one of your favourite actors has something coming up, best ask yourself, how much do you trust them?

The Silent Storm may well get a wider cinema release if only to pay the cinematographer. To explore the Film Festival programme, visit the website  and tickets are still available until Sunday when the Festival ends, but look out for further film reviews from the programme on Cultural Capital in the coming weeks.

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog is for people looking for more discursive and in-depth reviews of a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. I am also part of the London theatre review team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 300 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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