A Dark Song is nuanced by the compelling performance of Catherine Walker, a nagging guilt clawing at her emotionless plain-faced expression. She ensures the film’s peripheral mystery seduces through an uneasy, insincere calm.
Amidst a seemingly conventional backdrop – the imposing old mansion, the idyllic but isolated location, the panoramas of endless countryside – writer-director Liam Gavin’s film might find itself dismissed as derivative and unimaginative. Yet, even in the film’s ambiguous early stages, an unsettling stillness pervades Cathal Watters austere photography. It is nuanced by the compelling performance of Catherine Walker, a nagging guilt clawing at her emotionless plain-faced expression. She ensures A Dark Song’s peripheral mystery seduces through an uneasy, insincere calm.
We’re introduced to Walker’s Sophia whose nightmares are engulfed by memories of her dead son, a loss she blames herself for. Often wordlessly, the actress captures our sympathies. But we’re guarded; a sense of the unknown has us create a sort of shield from an expectation of discomfort. Is she telling the truth? Is her perception of reality reliable? Enter Steve Oram’s combative occultist to stifle and disrupt the foreboding equilibrium; pockmarking the disquieting serenity with black magic and a boorish tongue.
The slow-burn narrative as these two tainted individuals shut themselves off from the outside world allows Gavin’s story to pick up intrigue along the way even if by its conclusion it feels at least fifteen minutes too long. Sophia has tried and failed to get help contacting her son in the afterlife; Oram’s alcoholic Joseph Solomon appears to be a last resort and one whose “talents” the desperate woman is resigned to accepting. He tells her that he is able to provide what she needs but warns that summoning her guardian angel, through a gruelling rite of passage dictated by the Book of Abramelin, is not an easy proposition. And so it transpires as the woman is willingly degraded, starved and physically abused; a perverse irony emerging on her journey to find peace.
A Dark Song’s subtle supernatural textures hint at the psychological torment both individuals are wilfully supplementing, creating an interesting imbalance between the real and the imagined. But Gavin’s reliance on atmospherics, intermittent dream sequences, and snippets of Sophia’s ordeal stutter momentum; a visually arresting if, at times, onerous over-statement. This film does, however, continue to surprise. There are moments that creep under the skin (when Sophia hears her son’s voice talking to her from behind a door, for example) and a mid-film scene set in the bathroom that’ll defy expectation. The bold climax may have a flamboyance that betrays the subtleties we’ve come accustomed to in the previous hour and a half but works effectively thanks to Walker finding a fittingly odd yet beautiful poignancy in her final act.