This stunning debut by writer director Daniel Kokotajlo pulls aside the curtain on a world that very few of us know about, other than seeing those well dressed, smiling folk holding out The Watchtower magazine on street corners and perhaps an occasional knock on the front door.
The film focuses on three women – middle-aged Ivanna and her two teenage daughters, Alex and Luisa – who are all members of the local Jehovah’s Witness church in a northern town. The eldest daughter, Luisa, at college and coming into contact with those on outside of the religion, is starting to question to faith she has been brought up in. Younger Alex is devout, plagued by guilt about the blood transfusion she was forced to have as a child and pleased to have reached eighteen so that she can legally refuse any future interventions that might save her from her chronic anaemia. The mother, Ivanna, meanwhile remains stoically resolute in her faith, even as her family disintegrates around her.
First, Lusia falls pregnant and refuses to bring the father of her child to Witness meetings. As a result she is ‘disfellowed’, cast out of the church and no longer assured of her place in the ‘new system’, the paradise that Alex and Ivanna are sure will come at any moment. They are told to turn their back on the errant daughter, despite her pregnancy, in the hope this will encourage her to mend her ways and return to the fold.
And then something else happens. Something that you might see coming, but that’s delivered with such devastating quietness, it leaves you reeling.
Kokotajlo is from Tameside, near Manchester, and was raised as a Witness by his mother who joined the church when he was eight. As a result he brings a clear-eyed authenticity to the film that challenges the viewer to see the world through the eyes of the devout, while also revealing the suffocating horror of unquestioning faith (in one scene, in a rare moment of overwhelming emotion, Ivanna flees a prayer meeting, only to find the sermon is broadcast via speakers into the toilet where goes to hide.)
Siobhan Finneran puts in a fierce performance as Ivanna whose personal restraint is almost unbearable as her faith is tested to the extreme, especially during the second half of the film. You are waiting for her to crack, but also know that to do so would mean that she would betray everything she believes in. Sacha Parkinson and Molly Wright are also tremendous as Lusia and Alex respectively.
Shot in muted tones of grey and brown, the film pulls you in to the joyless word of Ivanna and her family in which they are content to sit and wait for the promise of salvation. The only explosion of colour being some ritualistic trips to the nail salon and the gaudy colours of a Witness promotional video that makes the promise of paradise.
Told from the point of view of the women, the film also subtly exposes the misogyny, and hypocrisy, at work within many religious organisations. The suited men who run the Witness meetings and cajole followers to ‘do the right thing’, quote lines from the bible alongside interpretations which change to meet the needs of the organisation (as Luisa points out, Armageddon was due to happen in 1975 but the year came and went without a glimpse of the promised land).
Honest, balanced and heart breaking, this is an expertly crafted story of faith coming up against real life decisions. A quietly devastating movie that is sure to rate as one of the best British movies of the year.