Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Sofie Gråbøl is superb as the troubled Chana." | Photo: Soren Kirkegaard

Maja (Josephine Park) is living on her own and working as a storyteller and children’s entertainer. Leah(Ellie Kendrick) is visiting Denmark when they meet, also doing her own thing, far from the controlling influence of her mother and London’s tight-knit Orthodox Jewish community. The attachment between them develops easily, organically, with laughter and excitement and carefree passion, quickly becoming more than either of them expected or intended. When Leah suffers a seizure, however, she feels the pull of home and her familiar support network. Maja agrees to accompany her.

Released in the UK not long after Oliver Park’s The Offering, this is another tale of a Gentile woman striving to fit into a Jewish family and finding herself in trouble because she’s unfamiliar with its occult tradition, but where the father in that case was welcoming, Leah’s mother is not. The Killing’s Sofie Gråbøl is superb as the troubled Chana, with a burden of secrets which she’s trying to drown in drink whilst maintaining a respectable image. Never very religious until she met Leah’s now deceased father, she has a convert’s zeal, but it’s her possessiveness towards her daughter which makes life really difficult for Maja – especially as Leah’s flat is in a building which Chana also lives in, and owns.

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Although it’s the first thing Maja suspects, homophobia does not seem to be the issue. At first, Chana makes an effort. Leah wears an amulet to protect against illness and Chana gives Maja an amethyst to ward off demons. She seems to welcome having someone to speak to in Danish, which is her own native language, but there are many things which she refuses to speak about. Why is there salt in the corners of the rooms? Why is there a ritual bowl for catching demons underneath a sideboard? Seeking advice, Maja finds her way to a local Kabbalist who is happy to help her get up to speed, but when Chana finds out, she worries that Maja might learn too much and become a danger to them all.

Is Chana seriously mentally ill? Maja becomes more and more sure of it, but there are odd little things going on which don’t fit. Writer/director Gabriel Bier Gislason keeps us guessing for a long time, and when answers finally emerge, they’re a little different from those in most such fare. Meanwhile, the complex relationship between the three leads keeps things interesting at a dramatic level, with good acting all round. Kendrick, whom viewers may remember from her role as Meera Reed in Game Of Thrones, does impressive work with a character who spends most of the film in a passive position, torn between her loyalty to the Maja and her mother, giving her depths which make their attachment to her feel more personal.

The film was made under lockdown conditions with limited resources and a tight shooting schedule. It does have problems in places, with some heavy exposition towards the end, and there are places where it falls down on research, such as in its handling of Maja’s peanut allergy, but if you take this in your stride, you’ll find a lot to enjoy. It taps into a fount of ancient lore which horror cinema has still done very little with, and though there are details in the film which you will need at least a passing acquaintance with modern Judaism to pick up on, its esoteric journey will thrill newcomers and those already steeped in it alike. By juxtaposing this occult horror with the grinding misery of family strife, intergenerational anxiety, and the young women’s effort to make their relationship work in spite of it all, Gislason has created something unique. Catch it if you can.

Reviewed on: 07 Feb 2023
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Maja and Leah’s new relationship is interrupted when mysterious things start happening in their London flat. It seems that Leah’s disapproving mother, who lives downstairs, is using Jewish folklore to come between them
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Director: Gabriel Bier Gislason

Writer: Gabriel Bier Gislason

Starring: David Dencik, Ellie Kendrick, Sofie Gråbøl, Josephine Park

Year: 2022

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: Denmark

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