The Sin-Eater

The Sin-Eater (2024)

Kelly Holmes’ The Sin-Eater opens with young Jemima (Carly-Sophia Davies) and her older husband Richard (Gareth Jewell) facing the unimaginable: the death rites for their newborn son Benjamin. Yet in this god-fearing mid-1850s Welsh setting, amid all the harrowing grief and guilt, there is another concern. 

“Is he safe?”, Jemima asks the young Scottish priest Samuel (Lewis Mackinnon).  For baby Benjamin has died before he could be baptised, so that his soul is still tainted with original sin, denying it entry to Heaven. Suspicions and recriminations abound. Jemima herself has a sinful past, and Richard’s stern, disapproving mother Eliza (Sharon Morgan) blames the lower-class, unsaved “outsider” for bringing “a sickly child into the world” – but still agrees to let her daughter-in-law hold vigil over Benjamin till the morning of the burial after Jemima expresses her desire to become godly.

During the night, alone with her baby, Jemima has a visitor. Though invited, Thomas (Jack Parry-Jones) comes in through the window like a thief (“I don’t use doors”), and insists on speaking Welsh despite Jemima’s shift to the English that her new, more ‘respectable’ family prefers. Yet this grave, intense man, clearly drunk, is no would-be adulterer, but rather the sin-eater of the title, hired to absorb Benjamin’s sins through an occult ritual – a process that has already left Thomas damned, doomed and (literally and metaphorically) scarred.  

“This is no parlour trick,” Thomas warns Jemima of the rite – but he is tricking her. As their furtive nocturnal assignation is carried out according to his strict instructions, Jemima is being drawn into an awful, inverted act of communion (involving bread and blood) that she does not fully understand – and that does not just involve her son. For she is about, Jesus-like, to take on the sins of others.

Shot (by DP Alan C. McLaughlin) mostly in shadowy candlelight, this is a darkly atmospheric drama where Jemima is negotiating not only the redemption of her dead son’s soul, but also her own place as someone always marked by both class and sex as a misfit. For Jemima is caught between two languages, two cultures, and two worlds – and despite her recent embrace of her new family’s beliefs and values, the ‘superstitious’ pagan practices of her past still have a hold on her.

Meanwhile the wrist welts that manifest Jemima’s compromised, cursed state remain a potent signifier even today for the self-harm wrought by social alienation and mental illness. Which is to say that, for all its specificities of time and place, Holmes’ eerie, unsettling short film, written by Matthew White, resonates down the ages.

strap: Kelly Holmes’ unnerving period short marks a grieving, guilt-ridden new mother with her own anxiety-riddled alienation

© Anton Bitel