Consecration (2023)

Consecration has its international première at the Glasgow FrightFest 2023.

Consecration opens with two nuns. The first is not real, but a bobblehead-ed plastic figurine on a car’s dashboard, crassly and kitschily exposing the commodifiable nature of the church’s icons as they intersect with the everyday life of the profane out in the real world. The second is a bona fide, flesh-and-blood sister, walking at a pace through London until she purposefully crosses the road to aim a pistol right at a woman stood opposite – a woman who recognises the nun and almost seems to be expecting her.   

The woman being targeted is Grace Farlo (Jena Malone), a rational, outspokenly secular ophthalmologist and ‘woman of science’ who is kind and caring towards her patients, while coming with her own traumatic past (and amnesia associated with it), and living as a recluse well used to keeping her own company. The rest of Christopher Smith’s film is a flashback leading up to that improbable collision in the street between habit-toting assassin and urban doctor. There will also be flashbacks within flashbacks, diving deeper into a history that goes back centuries, and even the odd flashforward, as Malone once again finds herself performing in a narrative – as she did in Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (2001) – where time is slippery, where doom is foretold, and where God, or perhaps the Devil, moves in mysterious ways. Grace not only specialises in eyes, but increasingly has visions of her own – dreamlike glimpses of ancient and more recent times, and of a bloody nun, and of a timeless conflict between the Christian church and a pagan relic from the past that the church seeks to contain.

After receiving news that her estranged younger brother Michael (Steffan Cennydd) has been found dead at the bottom of a cliff near a convent in Scotland, Grace heads north to the remote coastal area to determine what happened. Local policeman DCI Harris (Thoren Ferguson) assumes that Michael’s death leap, coupled with the fatal evisceration of a visiting Vatican priest, was a murder-suicide, while one of the resident nuns claims to have seen the Devil – and so Grace, deeply sceptical of either story, sets about getting to the truth. She finds an unlikely partner for her investigation in Father Romero (Danny Huston), sent by the Vatican to reconsecrate the convent’s chapel and to tie up any loose ends from the two recent deaths. Yet as Grace finds herself surrounded by secrecy and conspiracy, by hidden agendas and apocalyptic anxieties, she must not only resolve a mystery of the ages, but also work out her own significant part in what is transpiring – even as her increasing visions, and the increasingly palpable presence of a ‘guardian angel’, point to the sort of supernatural scenario that she has built her life denying.

There is a bravura single-take sequence near the beginning of Consecration, just before Grace first learns of Michael’s death, where the camera (ahead of Grace, looking back at her face) tracks her movements from the front door of her large London apartment, around a corner and down a corridor, only for it to become clear that the shot has all been – impossibly – a reflection in a fixed wall mirror that the real Grace approaches to look at herself, before turning to tend to her meowing cat in the adjacent kitchen. This sequence is a painstaking homage to the similar mirror-trick sequence from Robert Zemeckis’ science fiction Contact (1997), in which little Ellie (also, incredibly, played by Malone, a quarter of a century earlier) was tracked running frantically around corners, upstairs and through her home to help her soon-to-be-dead father, only for the whole sequence to appear to have been – again, impossibly – reflected in the upstairs bathroom cabinet mirror. The allusion in Smith’s film is dynamic: just as Ellie was about to lose her father, Grace is about to hear of her brother’s death, and just as the scene in Zemeckis’ film revealed a photo of Ellie and her father seen reflected in the mirror, there is a photo pinned to Grace’s mirror of Grace and Michael together, back when they were still children.

The sheer technical virtuosity of this might, and no doubt eventually will, be analysed in much the same way as Zemeckis’ sequence has been, but much more immediate is the uncanny effect its multiple mirror images have on the viewer. For here Grace not only passes, and is reflected by, a(nother) mirror on her way down the corridor, but then is revealed to be not the actual Grace but her own reflection, while it is only towards the end of the sequence that her true self enters the frame in front of the mirror (with her back to us) and then turns to the cat. At the same time, there is a picture of a younger Grace on the mirror, even as the whole sequence evokes the appearance of a much younger Malone in a similar sequence from 1997. This is dizzying on so many levels, as though, for a brief, seemingly seamless and fluid moment, the portal of a mirror serves to disrupt conventional spatiotemporal continuities, unifying Grace’s past and present selves while echoing the filmographic history of the actor playing her. All of which is an efficiently disorienting way to lead the viewer through the looking glass into a scenario where Grace’s identity will become fractured and duplicated, as both her past and future are reinscribed in an unorthodox, paradoxical script (like the one penned by her brother). One might even call this reiteration of Malone’s earlier scene a second coming.

In Scotland, Grace meets the wary Mother Superior (Janet Suzman) and the friendlier Sister Meg (Eilidh Fisher), pieces together the history of the convent and of the adjacent, cliff-top ruin from which Michael fell to his death, and also experiences traumatic flashbacks to her own forgotten childhood which is closely tied to this holy place. Here, as the Mother Superior will insist to a dubious DCI Harris, “a battle is raging between God and Satan, the light and the darkness.” Yet even as Consecration openly draws on ideas and images from Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Name of the Rose (1987), William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973)and Corin Hardy’s The Nun (2018), what makes Smith’s film interesting – and more akin to Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), which it also references – is its suggestion that between the polarised, Manichean oppositions of God and Satan, good and evil, other options may be available.

For here, there is critique for the clergy, and sympathy for the devil, as the narrative matrix of Catholicism, with its simplistic dualities and its patriarchal biases, proves insufficient to accommodate the complexity of what is going on, and is as much problem as solution to the messianic miracle unfolding. After all, can an organisation ready to abuse a young child be straightforwardly good? and should a nun ever be executing the ideology of her faith with the point of a knife or down the barrel of a gun? These are the questions that Smith (Triangle, 2009; Detour, 2016; The Banishing, 2020) raises in this paranormal parable where everybody, on every side, is trying to do the right thing, and where the gendered norms of Christian convention are being radically rewritten – with bloody, if perhaps not quite diabolical, consequences. 

strap: Christopher Smith’s complex clerical allegory pits Christianity against the secular and the pagan, showing sympathy for the devil 

© Anton Bitel