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Anchoress (1993)


Main image of Anchoress (1993)
35mm, black and white, 106 mins
DirectorChris Newby
Production CompaniesBritish Film Institute
 Corsan Productions
ProducersPaul Breuls
 Ben Gibson
WritersJudith Stanley-Smith
 Christine Watkins
PhotographyMichel Baudour

Cast: Natalie Morse (Christine Carpenter); Eugene Bervoets (Reeve); Toyah Willcox (Pauline Carpenter); Peter Postlethwaite (William Carpenter); Christopher Eccleston (priest); Michael Pas (drover)

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The story of Christine Carpenter, a 14 year old girl who has a vision of the Virgin Mary. In order to be close to her, Christine is enclosed in the wall of the village church, becoming an "Anchoress" who devotes her life to God.

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Perhaps as an inevitable by-product of being made in a largely secular society, few British feature films have tackled the subject of religious faith head on: the spiritual agony and ecstasy of an Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson or Andrei Tarkovsky seems quite alien to the British sensibility. But Chris Newby's debut feature tackles its central subject with a grave solemnity: whatever one thinks of its protagonist's views (and here, spirituality is tempered with easily exploited naivete), there's no doubting the conviction with which they're presented. Even when she's discovering her own sexuality, Newby's treatment could hardly be less prurient.

It's set in Shere, in Surrey, where 14-year-old Christine Carpenter, after claiming to be in direct contact with the Virgin Mary, takes the advice of her local priest and becomes an anchoress. Over the protestations of her parents, she is voluntarily walled up into a cell adjoining the local church, devoting her entire life to prayer and surviving on charitable donations of food while dispensing advice to pilgrims, and actively discouraged from continuing her relationship with her family.

Newby's models are generally from mainland Europe rather than Britain, notably Walerian Borowczyk's Blanche (France, 1971). There, a similar subject is explored by means of the same fetishistic attention to arcane detail, though Borowczyk's concerns were political rather than spiritual. Not that Newby neglects the politics: a key subplot concerns the power struggle between the wealthy Reeve (who marries Christine's younger sister after Christine makes herself unavailable), the Church and independent freethinkers like Christine's mother Pauline, the local doctor and midwife. The latter is eventually condemned as a witch, the villagers whipped up in a frenzy against her - a subplot that illustrates the film's other key theme: the way that religious authorities (whose concerns are usually anything but spiritual) conspire to suppress the masses in general, and women in particular.

The film is frequently stunning to look at, especially in a 35mm print. Michel Baudour's fine-grain black-and-white cinematography is constantly alive to the textures of stone, water and wheat (often depicted in extreme close-up), as well as the way that differing lighting conditions on the statue of the Virgin Mary can create the impression that it's somehow alive. Niek Kortekaas' production designs create an authentically lived-in feel - this is one of the most convincing depictions of medieval life ever filmed, with greater verisimilitude added by carefully-crafted sound effects rather than music.

Michael Brooke

*This film is available on BFI DVD.

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Video Clips
1. The offering (3:33)
2. Solitude (3:48)
3. Beware of touch (3:14)
4. Condemnation (2:32)
Eccleston, Christopher (1964-)
Newby, Chris (1957-)
Postlethwaite, Pete (1945-2011)
The BFI Production Board: The Features