Far From the Apple Tree
Ellis Reed reviews Grant McPhee's Far From the Apple Tree, 'a dazzling film with shades of the occult and folk horror'...
On top of his work as a digital imaging technician, Scottish director Grant McPhee has carved out a niche as ‘one of the most interesting film-makers in Britain today.’[i] His documentary about the post-punk scene in Edinburgh – a ninety-minute labour of love called Big Gold Dream (UK, Grant McPhee, 2015) – had its world première at the Edinburgh Film Festival,[ii] where it won the 2015 Audience Award. He’s also found enough time and energy to make three narrative features, which won prizes of their own at various festivals.
The latest of these is Far from the Apple Tree (UK, Grant McPhee, 2019): a dazzling film with shades of the occult and folk horror, which the director has described as a ‘Pop-Art fairytale’[iii]. Our story begins when budding artist Judith (Sorcha Groundsell) is given a superb if somewhat surprising opportunity: she moves in with her hero – the renowned avant-gardist Roberta Roslyn (Victoria Liddelle) – to catalogue her work. In return, Roberta will arrange for Judith to give her first solo show. The deal isn’t as good as it sounds, which won’t surprise you, because – well – the name of the site isn’t Delighted Magazine, is it?
Judith soon learns that Roberta has a daughter, Maddy, whose absence is shrouded in mystery. According to Roberta, they’re simply estranged. A friend from home – heard in fits and bursts through the inevitable bad reception – thinks there’s more to it than that. In either case, Maddy is the spitting image of Judith – or should that be the other way round? – when she appears in her mother’s old art films.
Judith is entranced by her doppelgänger. Lacking confidence in herself and her art, she diligently annotates the old footage. Maddy walks through corridor; Maddy plays piano; Maddy upset with people watching her. Soon, as a private experiment, she starts to emulate her glamorous double. At the same time, Roberta – sometimes maternal and sometimes more barbed – pours fuel on the fire of her mounting obsession.
The film is almost (not quite) a two-hander, and the presentation is coloured by the fact that both women are visual artists. From the footage shown, we guess that Roberta’s films are projected on the walls of art galleries, where passers-by can marvel at them in sequence. Watching Far from the Apple Tree is a similar experience. The meat of the story is a conventional horror, written by Ben Soper, but McPhee layers it throughout with art footage. We shift between formats and filters, left to decide which of the scenes are archive material and which convey a subjective experience.
Numerous strands blur together in that regard. Firstly, Judith is also an artist, which means she sees the world through her creative lens. Even when she drives to Roberta’s house, her view of the motorway is highly stylised. She spends her days watching endless snippets of unfinished art films, and her nights are filled with equally strange dreams. During the movie’s run time – especially towards the end – we frequently wonder which of these things we are being shown. According to Jennie Kermode, ‘the film sometimes shifts format, keeping us conscious of its own illusory nature… Quick cuts connect material from different parts of this fictional universe, across time and space, in a way that blatantly suggests the subliminal, playing with contradictions. It’s also dazzlingly beautiful, all the way through.’[iv]
In fact, McPhee told Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA) that there’s ‘a subconscious film language which we have certain associations with – 35mm at 24fps being the gold standard and Super 8 being associated with home movie memories. I wanted this to be central to the movie where each format would convey different moods and more importantly would bring in a conflict as to whether what they were watching was real, in the past, a memory or something else.’[v] As Judith’s mental state deteriorates, the film willingly loses itself in this aesthetic. It is, in part, an exploration of video, in the same way, that Berberian Sound Studio (UK, Peter Strickland, 2012) is an exploration of sound.
In addition to the distinctive visuals, the film has a first-rate soundtrack, courtesy of Rose McDowall. Her shimmering folk songs are enchanting and unsettling in equal measure. In terms of the interplay between what we see and what we hear, the film’s crowning achievement is the final scene; after ninety minutes of eerie meandering, both resolve into a beautiful and terrifying crescendo, fulfilling the promise of the slow burn. The ending is signposted too clearly to count as a ‘twist’, but you should certainly be surprised (and probably dazzled) by the execution. In short, it’s a triumph.
Groundsell, too, deserves high praise for the performance at the centre of the film. She’s completely believable at all stages of Judith’s journey and covers a surprising amount of ground by the time the credits roll. Based on the strength of this acting, we’re sure to see a lot of her in future.
The overall package is a unique, often mesmerising, always interesting narrative feature. McPhee told DCA that ‘the budget was tiny but we turned away from what most genre indie films usually do – to either create a calling card to show what we could do if given more money to make another film or to tempt mainstream interest towards this – we decided to use the opportunity to do something that exec producers and financiers would likely never fund.’[vi] Despite his intentions, he might find himself with a calling card all the same. The film won’t (and can’t) be for everyone, because of the amount of time and space given to texture, but that’s a creative choice. Far from the Apple Tree succeeds in doing what it set out to do – especially in the stunning finale – and for such a singular film, the remainder will be down to personal taste. It’s a dreamlike tour de force with an excellent lead performance, and those who like it will probably love it. Recommended.
Far From the Apple Tree is available to rent now from Redemption TV by clicking the image below