Synopsis: A widowed mother is radically tested when her teenage daughter experiences a profound enlightenment and insists that her body is no longer her own but in service to a higher power.
Stars: Sienna Guillory, Jessica Alexander, Ruby Stokes, Kaine Zajaz, Lindsay Duncan
Director: Ruth Paxton
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: You have to be careful with high-wire movies like A Banquet because one false move has the power to set you off balance and send you flying off into the darkness. I spent much of this British-made film wondering if Justin Bull’s screenplay was going to stumble and make that error, going too far with its look into a family undergoing severe dysfunction after suffering a trauma. Working with director Ruth Paxton, Bull knows when to pull that tightrope taut, and Paxton guides her cast with skill along that line connecting one crucial plot point to another. A Banquet isn’t the movie you think it is, initially coming off as if it might be headed into traditional horror territory before revealing true intentions far more shattering.
Recently widowed after years caring for her terminally ill husband, chef Holly (Sienna Guillory, forever Colin Firth’s cheating girlfriend in Love, Actually) is still struggling to get life back on track with her two daughters. Older teen Betsey (Jessica Alexander, Glasshouse) seems to have bypassed her rebellious years, forced her to grow up fast in the shadow of a sick parent. At the same time, younger sister Isabelle (Ruby Stokes, Bridgerton) takes up the mantle as often overlooked in favor of a more accomplished child. Betsey wanders off to the edge of a nearby forest at a house party with friends and returns…different. Soon, she is avoiding food and claiming to have been gifted with the vision of what’s to come. Eating food doesn’t interest her, and it shouldn’t concern anyone else.
What’s happened to Betsey in the forest is initially the focus of Bull’s script, and of course, we want to know what has affected her to alter her mood so entirely. She is repulsed by the simple satiation made available to her, and she can’t stomach several small peas without choking them up. As Betsey begins to regress into a weaker state and Holly focuses her attention on another infirm member of the family, Isabelle explores a more expressive side she hasn’t been allowed to try out before and finds the experience a little frightening but invigorating as well. Prophetic claims by Betsey indicate something (sinister? beautiful? horrific?) is drawing near, and Holly must get a handle on both her daughters if she is to save even one.
Released through IFC, A Banquet is a tense example of efficient filmmaking. There’s little onscreen that doesn’t need to be there, and all of it is in service to Bull’s screenplay. This script has a good understanding of interpersonal family relationships and a solid grasp of eating disorders without ever claiming expertise. Performances throughout are strong, with Guillory’s veneer cracking at just the right times and Alexander applying the correct amount of pressure to chip away at the vulnerable spots to make it do so. Especially delightful is Linsday Duncan (Blackbird) as Holly’s mother and the girl’s grandmother, popping in for a few visits and laying down some opinions that only a woman of her stature and experience could.
Your enjoyment of A Banquet is dependent on your expectation. IFC continues to show good taste around its genre films that buck the usual tropes of the niche. Strong cinematography from David Liddell and a score from CJ Mirra give the film a mood to match its mysterious performances and central structure. Don’t compare this to the blood and guts horror films the label has released before but take it on its own successful merits, and you’ll be treated to a veritable feast of successes on numerous levels.