Recent attempts to reinvigorate the British kitchen sink social realist genre have focused away from urban environments and towards the complex issues facing the countryside – God’s Own Country, The Levelling and Dark River. The Manchester-set Apostasy offers another corrective, albeit with an approach that likely wouldn’t successfully translate to other projects.
Here, with the story of a Jehovah’s Witness mother and her two daughters, the familiar miserabilism is justified as an intrinsic part of the milieu and narrative. The blank walls, fading wallpaper and grey skies are all part of a self-imposed prison for characters who routinely deny themselves art, pleasure, and any outside human contact apart from canvassing door to door or at train stations.
Behind the Kingdom Hall, where much of the story transpires, cars speed past on the motorway, going places that none of these characters will see, doing things they’ll never do. Green grass, rainbows, and laughter are only possible in a cheesy informational video.
Debut writer-director Daniel Kokotajlo and his cinematographer Adam Scarth trap their characters within the frame, using a 1.56:1 aspect ratio (not Academy ratio) to suggest still photography; the penultimate scene features the single, judicious use of handheld.
The film begins by focusing on the younger daughter, Alex (Molly Wright), and her impending 18th birthday, after which she will be able to (rather, have to) make her own decisions about her medical care. (Alex, anaemic, had a blood transfusion at birth, which is forbidden. This has since become a source of shame.)
Several other story threads and points of view are introduced. Her older sister Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) takes art classes at college, where she doesn’t discuss her religion, and begins seeing a boy she meets there (he’s kept almost entirely off screen). A new arrival at the ministry shows a romantic interest in Alex, and while he seems well-meaning, the age difference and the way their meetings are arranged and chaperoned entirely within the Witnesses is a little queasy.
And then, a narrative rug pull and the coming of age story falls away. Apostasy more clearly becomes a film not about any of these individual characters and their struggles, but about belief structures and how they’re constructed and perpetuated.
In one scene at a friend’s house, two children act out the story of the wise King Solomon, parroting a moral that they’re too young to understand – a real mother would let her baby live even if it meant losing them to another woman.
There’s a strong danger of heavy-handedness here – surely, if Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) loved her daughters, she’d let them “go” – but the strength of this film is its ambivalence. The ostensibly clear message of the Bible passage becomes murkier the more it’s applied to real-life situations.
Ivanna’s backstory isn’t explained, but it’s hard to escape the patriarchal leadership of the ministry and the fact that she’s a single, working class mother. Ivanna earnestly believes we’re living in the end times and we need to prepare for them because the unprepared will suffer through Armageddon. Yes, as in the King Solomon story, Ivanna would do anything to protect her children – but how that instinct manifests itself in her is unexpected.
The story builds to Ivanna trying to commit what is, from an outside perspective, an abhorrent act, and yet Kokotajlo and Finneran – known for broad sitcom Benidorm – have skilfully brought the audience into her worldview, an isolated doomsday mentality crossed with a persecution complex.
For a teenager, breaking away from the set of values that their parents instil in them is difficult but a well-trodden part of coming of age. For a middle aged woman, abandoning the only community and support system she has seems impossible.
The story and themes are rich enough to suggest broader philosophical questions around Western religion; it’s not hard to imagine an interesting Nietzschean reading, teasing out the film’s implicit critique of ‘slave-morality’, or exploring the Witnesses’ strict rules as a reaction to modern nihilism.
But while Kokotajlo, an ex-Witness himself, offers his fair share of criticisms of the religion, he remarkably resists playing moral arbiter or pitying his characters.