A Banquet

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Banquet
"Directing with confidence and misdirecting with grace, Paxton draws us into a world where the absence of apparent solutions becomes compelling in itself." | Photo: Courtesy of London Film Festival

It has never been easy to fully appreciate differences in thinking across generations, but it’s getting harder. A recent survey found that 60% of young people have significant worries about the future due to climate change, expressing feelings of fear, shame, anger and – sometimes overwhelmingly – despair. It’s different for those of us who are older and living in relatively safe countries. We will probably die before the worst of it begins to happen, allowing us to pretend – if only to ourselves – that it’s not as serious as all that. Recognising the catastrophic changes that will happen in their lifetimes is forcing young people to undergo a psychological shift that most of us will never be able to relate to.

It’s in such moments of social crisis (real or perceived) that people let go of old ways of thinking, sometimes abandoning rationality, emerging as saints, gurus or prophets, giving rise to new religions and forms of ritual which are indecipherable to their forebears. Something like this seems to be going on in Ruth Paxton’s stunning feature début, written by Justin Bull. Betsey (Jessica Alexander) and her mother Holly (Sienna Guillory) have always had a close relationship built on trust and mutual respect – that much is clear from the opening scenes – but one night, Betsey undergoes a change that will test their bond to the limit. It will also raise the possibility that that bond is itself a danger.

“I’m not anorexic,” says Betsey, protesting as Holly makes yet another attempt to get her to eat. She just doesn’t feel hungry. Holly lays a banquet before her: one mouthwatering dish after another, exquisitely photographed, but she rejects them all. Is she ill? Did somebody hurt her? Not that she’s aware of. Was it something she took at the party that night? She didn’t have anything she hasn’t had before, she says. The doctor gives her a clean bill of health, at least physically. And strangest of all, even as the days turn into weeks, she doesn’t seem to be losing any weight.

Is this some kind of psychosis? Is something supernatural at work? Either way, Holly struggles to do what’s right, gradually losing her bearings as she tries to protect her child. Her own mother, June (Lindsay Duncan) steps in to offer firm, pragmatic advice. Holly is caught between these different generational perspectives. On the one hand, she could try to force Betsey into a strictured way of living that feels wrong to her too; on the other, she could follow her on what might be a spiritual journey or might pull her down into madness.

All the performances are spot on, with Ruby Stokes particularly impressive as Holly’s other child, Isabelle, increasingly lonely in her normality, left to fend for herself emotionally whilst her sister is mum’s special girl. It’s a film about interiors, set in a stylish home which signals the orderliness of the family’s previous life, but the exterior world is beautifully framed and lit. A patch of woodland where Betsey underwent her change invites us to seek answers in folklore or in some human-inflicted harm, but Betsey’s behaviour on revisiting it, gazing up at the sky, is more reminiscent of a certain Nigel Kneale script. Prompted to question but denied any straightforward answers, we are placed in something of the same position as Holly, intrigued but frustrated, which makes Betsey’s calm certainty all the more appealing.

Directing with confidence and misdirecting with grace, Paxton draws us into a world where the absence of apparent solutions becomes compelling in itself, helping us to bridge that psychic divide before pulling the rug from under us again with a devastating ending.

Reviewed on: 10 Oct 2021
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A young woman undergoes a disturbing transformation after her daughter's newfound faith threatens her health.


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