Shepherd

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Shepherd
"There are different kinds of horror at work here and Owen keeps us waiting to see which will come to the fore." | Photo: Courtesy of London Film Festival

The skipper of the boat (Kate Dickie) knows that Eric (Tom Hughes) is running from something. She’s doubtless seen this before. It takes a certain kind of person to volunteer for a lonely post, tending sheep on an uninhabited island where his only human contact will come from her weekly supply drop. He doesn’t want to talk, seeking solitude even on the boat, but at least he has his dog Baxter (Shuggie) to look after him, and to help with the work. Before leaving him on the shore, she makes sure he has his map. It can be easy to get lost out here, she warns him.

The island is small but the haar that rolls in off the sea can smother everything. There’s frequently low cloud and driving rain. The rugged hills, with their curious rocky outcrops and possible menhirs, cast strange shadows. Across this landscape, the sheep wander at will. There is, after all, no way for them to leave. Director Russell Owen makes the most of this fantastic selling. There‘s always something to captivate the eyes, and whilst the sound design might be more effective if dialled down occasionally, there are moments when the weirdness of the auditory experience is very effective.

Eric knows very well what he’s running from – part of it, anyway. A dead wife who was pregnant when he lost her; and, before that, the parents who rejected him because he chose to be with her despite the fact that she didn’t share their strict Christian beliefs. There’s a strong turn from an almost unrecognisable Greta Scacchi as his mother, who delivers the kind of relentless criticism that stays in a person’s head no matter where they run to. His father is dead, but that just adds to his feelings of guilt and to his mother’s venom. But there’s more to Eric’s story. His has been a life shaped by fear, and perhaps, out on the island, he’ll have to face it.

This is a film all about atmosphere. It may not be set in a lighthouse but there’s still one present, to add to the effect, and more so because it has been abandoned and looms up spiky and ragged against the sky. Hughes is hollow-faced and jumps at shadows. Shuggie makes Baxter look similarly on edge, but though at times he is clearly reacting to the same things as his master, at other times it’s his master himself whom he seems wary of. Eric often shouts at him aggressively. The audience is left to wonder if this is what he was like as a husband, or if it is simply an expression of his grief.

There’s a mystery underlying all this – something in the past which Eric doesn’t want to acknowledge. Is it driving him mad? Increasingly, over the course of the film, Owen hints that there’s something unnatural about the island, too. Where is it, exactly? Somewhere far out to the west. That comment alone will put some viewers on alert. There are different kinds of horror at work here and Owen keeps us waiting to see which will come to the fore. In the end, he can’t quite decide, which weakens the impact of the ending. It’s too easy for us to get lost in the form of Eric’s troubles and miss the very real tragedy underscoring them. Nevertheless, there’s some good work here, and if you’re a fan of brooding, haunted tales with dramatic backdrops, you’re likely to go away satisfied.

Reviewed on: 16 Nov 2021
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A grieving widower is overcome by malevolent forces.

Director: Russell Owen

Writer: Russell Owen

Starring: Tom Hughes, Greta Scacchi, Kate Dickie, Gaia Weiss, Jamie Marie Leary, Shuggie

Year: 2021

Runtime: 103 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

Festivals:

London 2021

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