English writer-director Fridtjof Ryder’s directorial debut is a taut, well-made micro budget feature. After a successful crowdfunding campaign and production moving ahead, Ryder’s film caught the attention of Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance for its great, mysterious screenplay. The film strikes a strange, ambiguous tone as the protagonist spirals down a dark path. It is consistently intriguing more than anything else, one is forced to wonder what the true meaning of the folk-like imagery on-screen means. But at the same time, Ryder manages to make the film’s dialogue seem so ordinary. It’s this fine balance that the film strikes that ultimately makes it work.
A man (Rory Alexander), who remains unnamed throughout, returns to his hometown of Gloucester after being released from a psychiatric hospital. Memories of his childhood in the forests of Gloucester haunt him as he recalls his long-lost mother (Kathryn Heron), who abandoned him as a child and is the cause of his mental health problems. Upon his arrival, the man is welcomed in by Dunleavy (Mark Rylance), who gives him a job and a place to stay. However, things aren’t so easy for him to readjust to everyday life after his long stint away. And despite most people being happy to see him back, he begins to spiral as he falls headfirst into his trauma.
Rory Alexander gives a great performance as the broken, traumatised protagonist. It’s all in his eyes and every glance he takes echoes the deep-rooted mental wounds that he continues to struggle with. He is in a constant state of being perplexed. Rylance, naturally, brings a sense of levity to the film as he fully commits to the role of Dunleavy, the only person who cares for Alexander’s character. Acting with a distinct Gloucestershire accent, Rylance brilliantly comes across as an authentically gruff, common person. It almost feels like a walk in the park for Rylance as he remains fully at ease with Ryder’s deft dialogue. Anytime that Alexander and Rylance are paired on-screen it’s magic, those are the most grounded and memorable moments of Inland. Kathryn Hunter, of The Tragedy of Macbeth fame, grumbly narrates the film, she is a great, contemplative guide.
As advertised by the BFI and various press releases, prior to the film’s festival debut, Inland is heavy on symbolism and boasts elements related to European art house horror. Ryder relies on the protagonist’s unstable psychological state to implement flair into his and cinematographer Ravi Doubleday’s visual style. Its cinematography is most striking during the flashbacks when Doubleday makes the switch to anamorphic lenses to emphasise the distorted reality of the protagonist’s supposed memories. It’s in those moments, along with the mysterious sculptures that the man becomes obsessed with, that the film’s folklore elements come through. Most of Ryder’s debut is shot in tight close-ups with a healthy dose of expansive wides, both highlighting the loneliness of the man.
Inland’s unusual elements fragment what could’ve been a conventional film about a lost child, disturbed and changed by being abandoned. Although its themes are heavy on ambiguity and its intention can be sometimes perplexing, one can get a lot out of the film when looking at it as more of an allegorical puzzle. This will definitely be a film that many will want to come back to.
Inland is an impressionist experience that dips into folklore horror, while also putting as much emphasis on realism and the psychological effects of abandonment. It is a truly impressive directorial debut for Fridtjof Ryder, who definitely has a lot in him for great successive films. It will leave spectators pondering for a long while after the credits roll.
This review is from the 2022 BFI London Film Festival.