Censor (2021)

A film examiner with the British Board of Film Classification in the mid-Eighties, Enid Baines (Niamh Algar) embodies the censorious conservatism of her times. Both literally and metaphorically buttoned-up, with her severely tied-back hair and her Mary Whitehouse-style winged spectacles, she is known (behind her back) to colleagues as “Little Miss Perfect” for her painstaking approach to the job. “I do it to protect people,” is how she describes her work to her mother June (Clare Holman); and when fellow examiner Anne (Clare Perkins) expresses surprise that the endless excess on screen never seems to get to Enid, Enid responds: “I just focus on getting it right – I don’t really think about anything else.” Aloof, frigid, a little robotic, Enid seems entirely unaffected by what she sees. 

Yet beneath all Enid’s surface primness and prissy propriety, there is, as one character will later put it, “something rotten inside.” He is Frederick North (Adrian Schiller), director of the one film that does have an impact on Enid in the viewing room, causing her not just to stop taking her usual detailed notes, but to wince and weep and vomit. Don’t Go In The Church is an older film being resubmitted for video classification, but something in it triggers a trauma from Enid’s childhood, when her younger sister Nina vanished without trace whlle in her company. Ever since, Enid has been haunted by the incident, but unable to recall exactly what happened – much like the recent escapades of the so-called ‘Amnesiac killer’ who, after murdering his wife and children (allegedly under the influence of a film that Enid passed), claims to have no memory of having done it. “You’d be surprised”,says Enid’s BBFC colleague Perkins (Danny Lee Wynter) of the triple homicide (which has attracted public criticism of the BBFC and of Enid herself), “what the human brain can edit out when it can’t handle the truth.”

It is, of course, Enid’s job to edit out unpleasant truths and to censor the uglier side of humanity, and as everyone keeps saying, she is good at it. Yet when she starts trawling through North’s tawdry œuvre, convinced that his regular actress Alice Lee (Sophia La Porta) is in fact her long-lost sister Nina, Enid will go down a rabbit hole of denial and delusion, and will end up taking a leading rôle in the kind of scenario that normally she would cut considerably if not outright ban. Yet even as Enid drifts further and further into deranged fantasy, an underlying layer of reality will occasionally, insistently peek through, like the original film on a videotape over which a more reputable replacement has been imperfectly recorded.  

Set in the notorious era of the ‘Video Nasty‘, Prano Bailey-Bond’s feature debut Censor (which she co-wrote with Anthony Fletcher) captures the contradictions and hypocrisies of Britain under Margaret Thatcher, when a tabloid- and Tory-led moral panic shifted blame for every social ill to the horror films newly and readily available on VHS and Betamax, even as the Government itself was serially slashing social services and gleefully ruining many people’s lives. Enid may scour films for material with the potential to endanger, corrupt or deprave the viewer, but really all she is finding encoded and reflected in the scuzzy imagery is herself, her repressed memories and her reimagined sense of guilt. It is a disorienting psychodrama, and as Enid’s hair is increasingly let loose and her mania unleashed, her unravelling is painted in the beautifully lurid colours of (neo-)giallo.

Forming an unconscious diptych with Jacob Gentry’s Broadcast Signal Intrusion (2021), Censor shows a deeply damaged woman imposing her authority and errant imagination on the raw footage of reality, in the hope of finding personal answers and becoming (at least in her mind) the heroic protagonist of her own story. While pulling no punches on the misogyny found not only in video nasties, but also in some of those who made them (typified by Michael Smiley‘s sleazy producer Doug Smart), Bailey-Bond’s dazzling, dizzying feature is far more interested in reversing the conventional routes of baleful influence, as we see a professional viewer becoming part of a film that she cuts and hacks on the fly to conform to her own unbalanced worldview. As Enid, the excellent Algar reorients everything towards her unreliable perspective, transforming the drabness of Eighties London first into an artificially lit, paranoid slasher-scape, and then into a rainbow-coloured Thatcherite wet dream of glitchy, unattainable suburban utopia. This is a retro-styled metacinematic vision of the darker places in the British psyche – as well as a tragic tale of descent and disintegration where, at last in her happy place, Enid still remains incapable of seeing the blood on her own hands.  

strap: Prano Bailey-Bond’s feature debut inflects the unravelling of a film examiner in the idioms of the ‘video nasties’ that she cuts

© Anton Bitel