First published by Sight & Sound, May 2017
Review: “I don’t do forgiveness,” Sophia (Catherine Walker) insists to Solomon (Steve Oram), in writer/director Liam Gavin’s astonishing feature debut A Dark Song.
Three years after her seven-year-old son Jack was murdered, Sophia, inconsolable with grief, anger and loss, hopes to fill the gaping hole in her life, and so has rented a large, isolated house in the Welsh hinterlands for a year, and is now sealed inside with occultist Solomon, who is guiding her through a prolonged magick ritual. Wishing to be able to speak once more with Jack, and to secure a dark favour from her guardian angel, ‘posh girl’ Sophia commits herself to acts of transgression, in order to shift herself from her current malaise. So she transcends social boundaries by cohabiting with, and submitting to, the proletarian Solomon, and goes against her own Catholic faith through demonic invocations and necromancy – as well as through an earlier questioning of God’s goodness and abandonment of forgiveness in the wake of Jack’s death.
In cinema, ritual practices are a familiar trope of horror, with stock scenes of exorcisms, séances, pentagrams or ouija boards all marking a point of transgressive contact between this world and another. Yet in A Dark Song, scenes of ritual, far from representing a mere episode in a broader story, form the very essence and architecture of this intensely intimate chamber piece in which two flawed but driven individuals work through problems all at once worldly, psychological and spiritual via an irrational yet rigorously methodical process. Apart from the brief prologue, there is nothing else in the film besides these hermetic rites of Abramelin, furnishing a scripted scenario and an expressionistic stage on which Sophia can rehearse her internal struggles and psychological damage, in a desperate search for some sort of dramatic resolution. As Solomon says of Abramelin, “It’s essentially a journey. That’s a poor metaphor, that is, but it will do for now.” The ritual itself proves similarly provisional, as Sophia keeps changing the story of what she really wants, forcing Solomon accordingly to make drastic adjustments to the proceedings.
Solomon’s workaround for Sophia’s inability to forgive is to make her drink a glass of his blood – an ambiguous requirement, falling somewhere between an act of vampirism and of Christian communion (later, Solomon’s side will be pierced, marking him further as a Jesus figure). Indeed, ambiguity pervades A Dark Song, as it remains unclear whether the increasingly strange goings-on in the house are products of Solomon’s chicanery, or hallucinations caused by Sophia’s state of mental and physical exhaustion, or genuine, uncanny intrusions of the otherworldly. On any of these interpretations, however, the house’s interior, now reconfigured as a sigil-covered mystic portal, still gives play to a magical personal transformation in Sophia that is ultimately as sublime as it is deeply moving. For amid the personality clashes, cabin-fever claustrophobia, class conflict, sexual tension and endlessly repeated gestures, there are also momentary miracles and awe-inspiring epiphanies, all serving as a psychodrama of damage and rebirth in extremis. The film’s final sentiment, coming after this long, dark ordeal of despair, is hard-earned, requiring no forgiveness from the viewer.
Synopsis: Wales, the present. After paying year-long rent on a remote house in Wales, Sophie collects the occultist Solomon from the train station. He refuses to help her with the Abramelin ritual (to invoke a guardian angel) as mere love spell, but agrees to it after Sophia reveals that it is in fact for her to speak again to her son Jack, murdered three years earlier. Solomon seals the house with salt, and warns that the seal must not be broken until the ritual is over. Over months, Sophia undergoes a rigorous ordeal of fasting, sigil-drawing and meditation. Solomon suggests that a dog barking outside, and a black bird crashing into the window, are signs that the ritual is working. A toy figurine of Jack’s keeps disappearing and reappearing. When Sophia claims to be incapable of forgiveness, Solomon makes her drink his blood. Flowers appear, and gold flakes shower onto Sophie. Still, with the ritual unfinished, Sophia confesses that she really wants to ask her angel for vengeance against her son’s killers. Solomon ritually drowns and revives Sophia, who then accidentally stabs his side. Sophia talks through a closed door to someone who sounds like Jack, knowing it isn’t him. Solomon succumbs to his knife wound. Sophia tries and fails to leave the house, and after being tormented by demons, encounters her colossal angel and requests the power to forgive. Sophia leaves.
© Anton Bitel