UK Release Date: 27th July 2018
Runtime: 95 minutes
Director: Daniel Kokotajlo
Writer: Daniel Kokotajlo
Starring: Molly Wright, Siobhan Finneran, Sacha Parkinson, Robert Emms
Synopsis: A family of staunch Jehovah’s Witnesses is rocked by a series of events that seem to provoke questions as to whether their chosen way of life is the best one.
The first scene of the brilliant new British drama Apostasy opens with an apology to Jehovah. It’s both an apology from the film’s characters and, perhaps, an apology from writer-director Daniel Kokotajlo. He was, himself, a Jehovah’s Witness until his early twenties and his debut feature is a bracing portrayal of what it’s like to live within a religion that, in the way it operates, feels a lot like a cult. But the bravest thing about this movie is that it isn’t a noisy condemnation of a crooked faith; it’s an even-handed and understated depiction of a belief system that is central to the lives of millions of people all over the world.
Alex (Molly Wright) is an 18-year-old girl, living as a Jehovah’s Witness with her fiercely devout mother Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran). She suffers from severe anaemia and still feels guilt over the blood transfusion she received as a newborn, against the rules of the family’s faith. Her sister Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) seems to be drifting away from the world of the Witnesses while attending college and is completely ostracised from the church when she falls pregnant. This causes friction within the family as a young church elder (Robert Emms) arrives, with romantic feelings towards Alex.
Apostasy is a movie designed to continually knock its audience off balance. Kokotajlo’s perspective on the Witnesses is critical without being condemnatory, perhaps because the movie never leaves the bubble of the religion’s inner workings. The tone is defiantly understated and quiet, but the washed-out colour palette and Adam Scarth’s chilly cinematography makes it clear that this is not a warm and fuzzy world of religious joy. As in the similarly-themed faith drama First Reformed, this is a religious life that is free of the colour and joy that many associate with their beliefs.
At the centre of it all is the duo of tremendous central performances. Wright’s Alex is a pious, idealistic young member of the church, who believes steadfastly in everything she learns about Jehovah’s teachings. She takes one of her sister’s friends to task about the true meaning of the crucifix and is shown learning Urdu in order to teach the word of Jehovah to other communities within her hometown of Oldham. Wright’s wide-eyed innocence is made all the more compelling by her unshakeable certainty that her faith is the true one – even in the face of her own severely dangerous health condition and her sister’s departure from the church.
Siobhan Finneran, too, is wonderful as Alex’s mother. A long way from her best known roles in Benidorm and Downton Abbey, Ivanna is a woman capable of cruelty through naivety. When she is told not to spend time with her eldest daughter, she complies with little resistance. Her love for her daughters is secondary to her love for Jehovah and, although this brings her inner turmoil, she seldom has the courage to question those who impose these rules upon her. The final shot of Finneran’s character, which I won’t spoil, is a prime example of the understated sense of horror that Apostasy is able to create through its depiction of faith.
Kokotajlo’s restraint and control is remarkable given the fact this is his debut feature. There are shocking moments and revelations within his story that lend themselves to hysteria and melodrama, but he’s never tempted by these devils and instead focuses on the stellar work of his actors. Every shade of necessary emotion is communicated through furtive glances, repressed physicality and the words that are left poignantly unsaid. Apostasy largely eschews non-diegetic sounds, refusing to signpost the audience down particular emotional alleys.
This film is a prime example of a story that clearly has a viewpoint, but never strays into the world of polemic. Kokotajlo is critical of Jehovah’s Witnesses as a religion – with Emms’s slyly ambitious charmer the most obvious nod towards this – but that doesn’t mean he has any contempt for those living within its teachings. It’s a story that is about people, not ideas, and a movie that conjures a feeling of dread without ever resorting to the obvious tricks of lesser cinema. Kokotajlo is a real voice to watch because Apostasy is an utterly compelling and emotionally potent debut that makes its mark with understated power.
Pop or Poop?
In a year that has been absolutely terrific for British dramas, Apostasy stands out as a particularly strong entry in that canon. Great performances from Wright and Finneran combine with the unique, well-informed perspective of writer-director Kokotajlo to create a story that never feels the need to shout its ideas, because it communicates them through silence, story and character.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.