It’s autumn of 1973, but you wouldn’t know it. As a plane flies above, what’s below is a settlement that looks 100 years in the past. But as the introductory text to writer-director Thomas Robert Lee’s, The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw, explains, a group of Irish families established an isolated settlement in North America, the settlers keeping to Victorian times. Far from modernism, but not far enough from society to avoid pestilence it seems. In an event preceding the film, known as “the eclipse,” the settlement is hit with a sickness that poisons the soil, mutates livestock, and kills some residing in the small community. The only farmstead that the pestilence didn’t affect belongs to Agatha Earnshaw (Catherine Walker), which results in the town accusing her of heresy. And during all this, Agatha gives birth to a daughter, Audrey (Jessica Reynolds), under mysterious circumstances and has hidden her from the village for seventeen years. As her daughter’s “curse” begins to wreak havoc on the town, Agatha risks her secrets finally being revealed.
Hiding Audrey in a crate in the back of her carriage, Agatha rides into town and is quickly met with vitriol. “Everyone knows what you are.” The villagers are jealous of Agatha’s prosperity and the peace she seems to have on her secluded homestead. But they don’t know Agatha lives with the source of all their hardships. Seeing how the townsfolk abuse her mother, Audrey decides to curse the town. Soon, people and animals begin to die, the fruit begins to rot – a pestilence repeating. The town is “bedeviled by something unnatural,” a beautiful, deadly “creature,” they say, as they begin to go mad. And in this event, they begin to struggle with lost faith as God seems to have been replaced by the Devil.
Agatha warns Audrey that the town is full of “villains” who will take her away if they know about her, but Audrey is stubborn and rebellious. And rumors begin to spread as Audrey comes out of hiding. This is a talented ensemble cast, but the standouts are this mother and daughter pair and their complicated relationship. Walker plays a doting, protective mother, but also must show a sense of fear that lingers just beyond the surface as Audrey gets older, stronger. Audrey challenges her, believing her mother to be weak for letting the town step all over her. This relationship and how it crumbles results in one of the darkest coming-of-age scenes on film. Audrey is hypnotic in the eyes of the townsfolk who fall under her spell, and Reynolds gives the same effect to the audience. In only her second role, she’s a revelation. We remain transfixed by every move, every gaze she makes. Audrey’s purpose, how she came to be, is a key part of this tale that comes with some confusion as the film leaves that piece of exposition for the viewer to imagine for themselves. It feels reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby in the way that a woman gives birth to something created by dark magic. Agatha as a Virgin Mary figure bears, not a holy child, but a sinful one.
Lee produces an alluring narrative for only his second film as both writer and director. It’s pleasing to the eye as well, with Nick Thomas producing stunning cinematography from the film’s very first frame as we are given a beautiful aerial shot of the settlement from sunrise to morning light, contrasting with the equally pleasing eerie atmosphere in all its darkness and fog that becomes the film’s main backdrop.
The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw is an otherworldly film that, despite a lack of further exposition into its titular character, is unsettling and surprising. There are hints of witchcraft, vampirism, combined in an engaging tale of legacy and sacrifice.
This review is from Fantasia Fest. The film is set for US release on October 6, 2020.