The Noonday Witch

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Noonday Witch
"Alexander Surkala’s sumptuous cinematography makes the place look endlessly beguiling and, intermittently, delivers us into the kind of darkness that can only exist in contrast with such light."

Once upon a time there was a mother who had a very naughty little boy. He was so naughty that, one day, she warned him that she would let a witch come and take him away. But the boy carried on being naughty, and the witch never came, so the mother smothered the boy to death herself.

The popular Czech fairytale is an old one, preserved in poetry by Karel Jaromir Erben in 1853 and interpreted in music by Antonín Dvorák 43 years later. Jiri Sádek's handsome debut film carries it into the modern age. In a suitably uncertain rural location defined by its broad fields of parched golden corn, a sleepy village welcomes new inhabitants. A mother and daughter have travelled there from Prague to set up home in a tumbledown cottage. Their hair is golden like the corn. The daughter is excited by her new environment. The mother is beautiful and friendly and catches the eyes of the village men. But the mother has a secret from the daughter, and one of the village women, with a troubled past of her own, fears that a terrible curse has returned.

Sádek's work is suitably atmospheric. The weather is hot - everybody talks about it. It hasn't been this hot for 40 years. But we also see it: the wide blue skies, the golden sunlight, the withered grass, the dust. No water is flowing through the pipes; the villagers have to depend on a supply truck. Alexander Surkala’s sumptuous cinematography makes the place look endlessly beguiling and, intermittently, delivers us into the kind of darkness that can only exist in contrast with such light. There, every shifting shadow is suspicious. The daughter, Anetka (Karolína Lipowská) says boldly that she wants to sleep alone. The mother, Eliska (Anna Geislerová), keeps petitioning her to share her bed. Is she being protective, or seeking reassurance in the face of her own superstitious terrors, or looking for comfort in relation to the secret she carries, or simply resisting the inevitable process of Anetka's growing up? Whatever it is, her clinging, in combination with her lies, speeds up that process of separation, prompts the child to purse precocious independence.

Like any parent faced with that process, Eliska worries about external threats. A mysterious warning from her troubled neighbour doesn't help. is there someone, or something, waiting out there n the rippling sea of corn, calling to her bold little girl? So she begins to implement restrictions. Small things at first. gradually increasing. Gradually tightening their grip. How tightly can one hold a child before it suffocates?

Unfolding beautifully, Sádek's fable loses its way toward the end, before the church bell, also heard in Dvorák's interpretation, sounds the final act. Its grip on the audience slackens just when we should be struggling to breathe. Yet the film's lyrical construction and intense central performance from Geislerová, well matched by newcomer Lipowská, do justice to the enduring power of the story, and this is a film that will likewise linger in the memory, casting a spell over all who see it.

Reviewed on: 07 Nov 2016
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The Noonday Witch packshot
Eliška moves back with her daughter Karolínka to her husband’s native village. But something strange is going on and, as the temperature rises, Eliška becomes increasingly jittery. Fear is all-pervading and spectres move freely between dream and reality.


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