Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"This is a house where children’s rules hold sway."

There is no more vilified figure in English children’s literature than the stepmother. It’s understanding that any well read child would be nervous about acquiring one, and Richard’s (Tom Goodman-Hill) children are certainly that, with their elegant clothes and manners and classical piano playing. They live in a big country house with their mother, but for some reason she’s not around when Richard and his new wife Holly (Aisling Loftus) arrive for the weekend. As her absence grows prolonged and the dynamic starts to shift, Holly, already worried about whether or not she’ll be accepted, begins to feel that something is amiss.

With a beautiful location and the kind of mellow, humid weather that cinematographers love, Homebound is effortlessly appealing to look at. It creates that sense of ease associated with the wealthier parts of rural England, so often at odds with the reality of crumbling roofs and mouldering cellars. Writer/director Sebastian Godwin has assembled a fine young cast. Viewers may recognise Raffiella Chapman from the His Dark Materials series, whilst Hattie Gotobed had a small but memorable role in Game Of Thrones. As Lucia, the latter is the one whom the other children defer to in the absence of their mother, looking for moral guidance which their father seems unable to provide. This is a house where children’s rules hold sway, which frightens Holly on a deep, instinctive level, though as the story unfolds they come to seem less monstrous than tragic, trying to cope with things they ought never to have to endure.

This isn’t a film full of gore. Godwin has the sense to leave its more horrific sights to the imagination. It does feature some deeply disturbing scenes, however, which you may find particularly hard to watch if you’re a parent. It also draws on that particularly English form of social agony, whereby Holly struggles to exercise moral agency because she’s acutely aware of her status as a guest. This exacerbates the existing power imbalance between her and Richard, who is older and seems more established in life, with a family and some measure of financial resource, whilst she has nobody else in the world and is plainly adjusting her life to fit around his. This landscape of fields, woodland and outdoor swimming pools is alien to her. A scene in which a goose is killed (offscreen) for dinner emphasises how little she really understands how the world works, despite being perfectly happy to eat meat.

Holly is the only one who really gets a character arc here, though the youngest child is growing up and also beginning to make discoveries about her environment. The family dynamic is already well established when we step into it, and the actors do a good job of making this convincing. With a rather abrupt ending, the film leaves a good deal open to question. It seems to depart from formula almost accidentally, perhaps due to a failure to understand where the strongest emotional beats lay until the editing stage, but it’s more interesting as a result. Genre tropes don’t pattern out the way you might expect. The enduring horror is in what becomes ordinary.

Reviewed on: 09 Oct 2021
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A man takes his new wife to meet his children in their remote country home.
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Director: Sebastian Godwin

Writer: Sebastian Godwin

Starring: Tom Goodman-Hill, Aisling Loftus, Raffiella Chapman, Hattie Gotobed, Lukas Rolfe

Year: 2021

Runtime: 65 minutes

Country: UK

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