Lovely, Dark, And Deep

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Lovely, Dark And Deep
"Campbell is perfectly cast. She has sufficient physicality to make one believe that she could cope with this demanding job, yet there’s a nerviness about her whole body reminiscent of prey animals." | Photo: Fantasia International Film Festival

We like to conceive of ourselves as rational creatures, but there are times when we run up against things which our brains are just not built to comprehend, things too vast or too much at odds with the familiar for us to fit them into our understanding of the world. In the folklore of much of the Northern hemisphere, such experiences have traditionally been associated with the woods. That’s where Ranger Lennon’s little sister, Jenny, disappeared. That’s where, around two decades later, Ranger Lennon plans to continue the search.

Losing Jenny is something which Lennon (Georgina Campbell) has never really managed to get her head around. One moment the younger girl was there, the next she had vanished amid the trees. Lennon’s obsession with finding answers is too big to hide. Other rangers whisper that she’s crazy. Still she has managed to prove her abilities and work her way up to the point where she is given charge of a small ranger station in the area of National Park where the incident occurred. He small hut, with its canvas walls strapped across a wooden frame, feels precarious in the vast of night when unknown things bump around outside, casting strange shadows on the walls. People lose their minds out here, she has been warned, but she’s fought too hard for too long to let go now.

Right from the start, writer/director Teresa Sutherland, who explored adjacent territory in her script for 2018’s The Wind, casts a spell with her visual exploration of the forest. One is reminded of the twisting long shot which Ari Aster uses as his young protagonists approach the Swedish village in Midsommar, but Sutherland takes it further, sliding across and between the thickly covered hills at angles which feel unnatural, contrary to the dictates of the wind and the light, not to mention gravity, and at last ascending into the hidden spaces between the trees. It’s only later that you might come wonder if this is more than a visual trick, and a part of the narrative – a very particular perspective.

Lennon’s mind is already primed to expect strange things. As she patrols her territory, searching one area after another, she listens to podcasts whose hosts and guests discuss their theories about disappearances in the parks. As is common with these things, there’s a big focus on how many people go missing and rather less on the fact that most of them are found, but some curious little details emerge which may stick in your mind. They’re certainly fresh in Lennon’s when, one night, she is called out into the darkness to deal with a shocking situation; but it’s what comes later, after the sun has risen, that will really test her nerves.

Campbell is perfectly cast. She has sufficient physicality to make one believe that she could cope with this demanding job, yet there’s a nerviness about her whole body reminiscent of prey animals. When distracted, Lennon chews on the index finger of her right hand, sometimes leaving it bloody. It was the last part of her to have contact with Jenny. Later, in a dream or vision, she will imagine her mother taking the same gesture to an extreme. Her neighbour, Ranger Jackson, assures her that anyone would have to be a bit crazy to want that job. The question which viewers will be asking is, is she the craziest thing out there?

Shot with stunning confidence by its first-time director, Lovely, Dark, And Deep, which screened at Fantasia 2023, makes great use of the natural environment, from open expanses of granite to liminal spaces like a mirror-smooth lake. It’s intensely absorbing, with some scenes which will really make you shudder even when not very much is actually happening. Its narrative resolution suffers from seeming a little too close to some other recent films, and less vividly realised, but tonally it’s very effective, and Lennon’s emotional journey is arguably more important than the rest. Folklore, science fiction and horror all have a place here, but it’s the very ordinariness of Lennon’s underlying suffering which packs the greatest punch. She has promises to keep.

Reviewed on: 25 Jul 2023
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Lovely, Dark, And Deep packshot
A new back-country ranger travels alone through the dangerous wilderness, hoping to uncover the origins of a tragedy which has haunted her since she was a child.

Director: Teresa Sutherland

Writer: Teresa Sutherland

Starring: Georgina Campbell, Nick Blood, Wai Ching Ho, Edgar Morais, Ana Sofia Martins, Paul S Tracey, Soren Hellerup

Year: 2023

Runtime: 87 minutes

Country: Portugal


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