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Non-Review Review: The Silent Storm

The Silent Storm is an ironic title for this over-produced melodrama.

The Silent Storm is a story about an abusive marriage and an unlikely affair that blossoms on an abandoned Scottish island when a trouble young man is assigned to the care of a fire-and-brimstone minister and the minister’s housekeeper-slash-wife. Inevitably tension mount and passions flair as the three characters dance around each other, with nothing but the craggy cliffs and choral soundtrack to keep them company. For an empty island abandoned to the forces of modernity, there’s a pretty loud choir to keep our three primary characters company.

Let us prey...

Let us prey…

There is an appeal to this sort of dour character study. Writer and director Corinna McFarlane has cast two great actors in the lead roles of her first narrative feature; Damien Lewis and Andrea Riseborough are perfectly suited to this depressive melodrama, as a couple trapped in a repressive and abusive marriage with simmering tensions. The problem is the McFarlane never pitches the film at the right level. For a harrowing story of abuse and violence, the film frequently trips into self-parody.

Part of the fault rests with Lewis and Riseborough, who turn their performances up to eleven to match the production around them. However, a lot of the blame falls to McFarlane, who is utterly unwilling to let any moment stand on its own without pushing the theme or the mood to breaking point. The result is a film that struggles to find the right tone and so occasionally feels like a postmodern ironic deconstruction of the genre into which it is trying to fit.

Passion project...

Passion project…

Lewis is cast as Balor, the local reverend to a small community that is on the verge of dissolution as the local mining industry collapses. Balor tends his flock with a quiet and resolute attitude, a stoicism to which his flock responds. It is not coincidence that the first act of The Silent Storm focuses on a ram entrusted to Balor’s care; this is an island where the inhabitants are as rugged as their surroundings. Early in the film, Balor counsels one of his parishioners against divorce. “To expect to be happy in this world is a form of arrogance,” he advises.

That very much sets the tone for the film, which positively wallows in the suffering of each of its three leading characters. Balor is a reverend who has seen his flock depart, and who finds himself instructed to abandon the island to which he has committed himself. Aislin finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage to a drunken abusive brute, suffering silently as she is judged by the townspeople as an outsider. Fionn is a youth commanded to the care of the reverend, a young man corrupted by “city morals” who finds himself in for a rude awakening.

Rev-ed up.

Rev-ed up.

The plot of The Silent Storm practically writes itself, taking these three characters as its starting point. There is little room for nuance in the script, which pushes all three characters to the extremes of their archetypes. Balor is not just a control freak, he is an obsessive ready to turn brutishly violent at the drop of a hat and who take sadistic pleasure in exploiting those commanded to his care. Aislin is temperate and forgiving, long forced into submission. Fionn is an innocent who is more of a victim than a criminal, a sensitive soul who reads poetry in the bathtub.

To be fair, there are points at which this works quite well. The Isle of Mull is the real star of the film, and Ed Rutherford’s cinematography makes the surroundings look suitably gothic. There are several shots that look like they would make the perfect cover to a contemporary edition of Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, which is exactly the aesthetic demanded of a story like this. McFarlane recognises the beauty of the island, and the film is punctuated with beautifully long-distance shots of various landmarks, like a sheltered cave or a tree mangled by the wind.

Great Scots.

Great Scots.

The island is the most interesting character in the film, but it also gives the most nuanced performance. The script doesn’t really give Lewis and Riseborough much to play, but both actors consciously heighten their performances to the point that any depth is lost. Lewis is just missing a moustache to twirl. Riseborough is overwhelmed by her accent. Scottish accents are quite tough, but Lewis mostly does well; he does however go completely overboard towards the climax when the film asks him to switch from “Scottish accent” to “drunk Scottish accent.”

To be fair, Lewis and Riseborough seem to understand the film they are working with. The actors seem to be shouting just to be heard amid the cacophony around them. For a film about simmering tensions and buried passions, The Silent Storm amplifies absolutely everything. McFarlane seems afraid of any true silence. When characters are not talking, the wind is howling. A ridiculously over the top choral soundtrack from Alastair Caplin assures the audience of how they should be feeling from moment to moment.

He's considering whether to Balor not.

He’s considering whether to Balor not.

The same is true of McFarlane’s direction. The Silent Storm is almost afraid to entrust its two lead actors to carry a moment. Every once in a while, the film allows for a long reaction take from Lewis or Riseborough, but McFarlane opts to shoot these sequences with a hand held camera as if wary of the actors’ stillness. There is an awkward emphasis on physicality. At one point, a savage act of domestic violence is interrupted by an unannounced guest; Balor and Aislin pop up out of the bottom of the frame in a scene that might have been lifted from a sitcom episode.

This is just one example of how The Silent Storm struggles with tone, declaring itself at great volume but to little purpose. The Silent Storm might rage, but it ultimately feels like little more than a damp squip.

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