In a genre dominated by mainstream cattle prod cinema, it is always a nice surprise to find something different that just creeps up on you as if from out of nowhere. Many of the films that dominate the market today are fashioned around the premise of shocks and scares that leave little more than a tepid aftertaste when all the shouting is finally over. For this reviewer, there remains a longing to hark back to the strongly fashioned character driven pieces of times gone by, stories of the supernatural that seep into your pores, and leave a lasting impression. Axelle Carolyn’s feature length debut Soulmate- out today in the UK- is one such film; a bold and resonant genre piece and one that makes a strong opening statement in what will hopefully be the start of many more things to come as her career as a director develops. Bold because this is a film that does not follow the herd, and for a first picture this is a courageous move for the director.
It is perhaps unfair to line Soulmate up with the bulk of genre offerings, in essence the film plays out along the lines of a macabre drama, rather than in your face horror- however that is not to say it is not without its moments. The plot builds like embers on a smouldering fire, before bursting into a final glow of flames. For those familiar with- for example- the seventies BBC ghost story based dramas Soulmate plays out along similar lines, opting for strong characterisations, and a heavy emphasis on dialogue, and mood to set the tone. Although some may be put off by this approach, or worry a certain amount of patience may be needed, it is fair to say- for this reviewer- watching these characters build, and the narrative catch light was fairly effortless, when you consider just how engrossing the performances involved are. Although Soulmate owes a great debt to traditional pieces in its gentle crafting, the result gives this film a contemporary edge, moving away from the conventional haunted house tropes into a whole new territory altogether. So while the film carries the essence of those classical pieces it is anything but orthodox in its construction.
The story focuses on Audrey who unable to cope with the death of her husband leaves for an isolated cottage in the country. Once there she is troubled by strange things that go bump in the night and enlists the help of a local doctor who puts it down to her state of mind. But the cottage has a troubled past and Audrey’s arrival in the village opens up old wounds that would be better off left alone. What follows is a story laced with a dark hearted undertone, bathed in tragedy. Strong feeling is evoked surrounding the themes of grief, jealousy, lost love, selfish obsession, and guilt. Carolyn plays with a narrative that straddles both sides of the veil that governs the land of the living and the dead. This is not a simple ghost story in any sense of the word, but one which focuses on the power of human emotion, even after death. Soulmate has a rare understated beauty that ebbs and flows, through every facet of the piece, and it is clear that Carolyn- who also wrote the script- has a passion for her subject matter.
Key to the success of the film are the performances involved. Anna Walton as the lead Audrey takes most of the focus. Walton puts in a subtle performance of a woman struggling to come to terms with the death of her husband- evoking a desperately lonely character trying to make sense of her situation. Thankfully the script, and also Walton’s performance, avoid the area of over the top dramatics, or hysterical wailing, with both opting for a delicate approach when it comes to conveying a sense of human pain and emotion. Tom Wisdom takes the part of Walton’s male counterpart using a similar line in building up a strong emotion based character. His part allows for some unexpected twists and turns as the story reaches its conclusion- to which he demonstrates a certain skill exploiting the different angles. The film has a limited cast, and, as a result, retains an intimate feel which fits perfectly with the context. Tanya Myers as neighbour Theresa, and Nick Brimble as Dr. Zellaby form the bulk of the supporting characters, and although both enjoy little screen time, the two demonstrate solid performances when they appear.
As far as the cinematography is concerned Soulmate carries a delicious haunting gothic aura. The use of idyllic countryside locations- along with a picture box cottage and strong autumnal atmosphere- summons the mood perfectly. The film manages to transcend budget limitations with stylish camerawork that asserts an overall feel of both beauty and isolation. The use of lighting and shadow used within the interiors ellicit tension at just the right moments- layering in an initial feel of uneasy dread as the story begins. There is also a heavy British character to the piece that slots into the traditional British ghost story margins perfectly. Overall there is a strong flavour of gothic romance flowing through the central story arch and tone and on that basis it will appeal to fans of the subgenre. The atmosphere is further supported by the sombre dramatics of Chris Henson’s score.
For a film with such an intelligent and subtle approach to building a story, it may surprise some that even after passing German shockfest Nekromantik uncut this year, the BBFC saw fit to step in before they would grant a certificate. Sadly the film’s overarching thematic element of suicide resulted in over two minutes of cuts being ordered. If not the film would not have achieved a certificate at all. The removed scene involved a suicide, and it is stated on the BBFC website ‘Cuts were required to remove a detailed focus on a particular suicide technique.’ It seems a shame this decision was made when you consider the substance of Soulmate, the messages it contains, the mood and tone. It is surprising that anyone could find anything to offend in a film of this nature, and why this decision was made remains a point of contention. It is important to mention removing this scene does not seem to damage the context of the film as it is clear this incident has happened from the dialogue.
Controversy aside Soulmate is a charming and solid piece of gothic horror/drama. For fans of classical and understated affairs with traditional leanings, you could do a lot worse than check this one out. The DVD comes with a director’s commentary and interviews with writer/director Axelle Carolyn, her husband (who helped to produce Soulmate) Neil Marshall, and lead actress Anna Walton. This also comes with the inclusion of the director’s two short films The Last Post and Halloween Kid. It is safe to say the film will not be to everyone’s taste. For those who yearn for more variety in the genre, and hanker back to the times of classic pieces such as The Haunting and The Innocents, this film represents a step in the right direction, and that- for this reviewer at least- represents a very exciting prospect indeed.
Out now on SODA PICTURES.
View Trailer Here