The Heiress

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Heiress
"At the heart of it all is Nergaard's performance, and this is where the film finds its power."

Claire (Candis Nergaard) and Anna (Jayne Wisener) have always been close. Claire is epileptic and sometimes gets injured or becomes confused when she has fits, so Anna looks after her. When their grandmother dies it makes sense for them to move into her small suburban house together. They uncover a few strange things when cleaning out the old woman's stuff, including a book which intrigues Claire, but their relaxed attitude to the move changes when Claire begins to see things. Specifically, she's convinced that there are threatening presences in the house. Naturally, given the risk that fits can cause brain damage, Anna suspects a psychiatric cause, but horror fans will not be so quick to jump to conclusions.

Let's get two things out of the way before going into the rest. Firstly, the lighting set-up here is really bad. It's one of those aspects of filmmaking which is easy to forget about because even a basic level of competence means that you won't notice it unless it does something unusual, so it frequently trips up beginners. When it's as bad as this, it makes it impossible to forget that you're looking at a set through a screen. Secondly, the acting style is melodramatic and reminiscent of a soap opera, with big declarations, artificial pauses between lines, the works. This, too, makes it difficult to suspend disbelief. It has an unexpected secondary effect, however, making one feel as if one were watching a very mundane bit of daytime TV programming and seeing it taken over by something very, very different.

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At the heart of it all is Nergaard's performance, and this is where the film finds its power. Somehow, despite starting in the same place as the other actors, she transforms her work into something both convincing and compelling. Claire's ordinariness makes her slow mental breakdown heartbreaking to watch, and no less so if we're inclined to agree with her that she's not actually insane. As any rational person under such pressures might, she loses confidence in the evidence of her senses and is so overwhelmed by an experience nobody takes seriously that all she really wants is to retreat and hide - until she realises that whatever the hostile force she has encountered is, it might not only be her that it's after.

Complicating all this is a religious perspective, with the suggestion that Claire's tormenter is connected with a figure from the Old Testament. Various Christians try to help Claire in line with their own traditions, but she's as uncomfortable with that as she is with the whole thing being ascribed a medical explanation. She's determined to make sense of it on her own terms. This mixture of approaches adds weight to the depiction of the supernatural by implying that it is an extant phenomenon which has historically been subject to a variety of understandings.

Whilst all this is going on, so is the day to day life which Hollywood treatments of similar stories tend to push into the background. Anna is worried about Claire but still has to go to work, and she's finding her boyfriend Dan (David Wayman) increasingly jealous of her time. His self-centred bullying and possessiveness sets real world horror alongside the supernatural and ties into an awareness of the centuries old pattern of women turning to gods or spirits for protection in a world where they have little other recourse against abusive men.

Much more complex than its cheap and cheerful style initially suggests, The Heiress showcases some impressive work and suggests that, with the right training and support, its creative team could make a valuable contribution to genre cinema.

Reviewed on: 15 Mar 2021
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After two sisters move into an inherited house, one of them begins to sense a threatening supernatural presence.

Director: Chris Bell

Writer: Chris Bell, Danny Prescott

Starring: Candis Nergaard, Jayne Wisener, David Schaal, Jonny Phillips

Year: 2021

Runtime: 83 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

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