At what point does the care and attention of a close-knit community become too close, evolving into a punishing system of abuse and control? What separates legitimate beliefs from the parasitic, overbearing decrees of an extremist cult? If you’re looking for ambiguous and equivocating answers to those questions, don’t watch Apostasy, a forthright and righteously distressing drama from debut director Daniel Kokotajlo, charting the spiritual crises and commitments of a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
British TV mainstay Siobhan Finneran plays Ivanna, a single mother from Oldham raising her two daughters. Sacha Parkinson’s Luisa goes to college, her secular studies of art clashing with the demands of her church. But an even more life-threatening conflict threatens to bubble away within and around Alex (Molly Wright), who, on the verge of adulthood, will legally be allowed to refuse blood transfusions, something she was unable to do when she was born and the hospital performed one in order to keep the baby, born with anaemia, alive. Her mother won’t talk about it, until she does, describing Alex ‘living with the guilt of having somebody else’s blood inside her’— the Witnesses believe, according to a doctrine younger than many of Britain’s pensioners, that transfusions are an unnatural violation of God’s design.
In the opening scene, Alex talks to a sympathetic nurse who tries to get her to give secret permission for the procedure. Not such a hypothetical when dealing with an anaemic patient, who may need emergency help at any time. What is hypothetical is that the scene occasionally cuts to a too-tight close-up on Alex’s face, talking to God as if she is alone in the room. This unusual approach to film grammar is an absolute coup; firstly, because it tricks us into thinking that Alex will be our main character from the get-go, an almost Psycho-esque wrong-footing in the face of the story’s slalom run around the three women’s downhill trajectory; secondly, because in Kokotajlo’s world, despite the camera’s suffocating intimacy, characters are not necessarily more honest and open with God than they are with each other. There is still so much to interpret.
For example: even though Alex needs her mother’s strength, at the end of the scene, to spiritually and mentally resist the nurse’s temptations, which of them is really more committed to their beliefs, more blindly accepting? When Alex’s sister wavers in her faith and is ‘disfellowshipped’ (cultish lingo abounds), is the geeky young Elder (a kind of priest, see?) sent to romance her in order to make sure she is not on her sister’s path, or is this a coincidental and entirely sincere relationship? When Luisa leaves the church for good, has she abandoned the toxic religion or just the community that fosters it? And, the real million dollar question: what, exactly, is stony-faced, increasingly anguished mother Ivanna thinking?
Finneran never glitters or radiates much motherly warmth, but she’s the star of the show, her performance a masterclass in exposing the inconsistencies and the nuances even within the mind of a maddeningly persistent fanatic. In every scene we wonder whether she is going to gloriously capitalise on the promise of the film’s title. No. She always fall back to her beliefs, but from a different precipice each time. Actually, she can be extraordinarily kind and attentive to her daughters; or we can infer that she is trying to be, and the strength of her beliefs is such that it neutralises the immense effort, or diverts it in some bizarre or terrifying way.
It’s a mark of the quality of all three performances, not to mention the direction, that the film is reminiscent both of the best that Britain’s social realist tradition has to offer, and the lurid supernatural family drama of a film like The Shining or, more recently, Hereditary. A minor character in an early scene worries that he’s being spiritually assailed by demons every night; the others might laugh at his concerns, but his fear of a repeated loud noise, growing in volume, that goes away when he prays hard enough, seems real to him. And perhaps these are the terms on which these Witnesses experience doubt, regret and nascent rebellion. The sound design of the rest of the film never lets us forget this little scene.
It’s a nightmare scenario, a bleak one, but it never distances or alienates. There’s a pang of relatability in how these characters yo-yo between love and fear. ‘Apostasy’ implies a movement away from something, but also literally a stasis, a being still next to the ones you love, unable to truly help them, held back by an unscalable wall of deeply rooted dogma. And then there’s the Elders, who are not demons, just a gang of middle-aged men in ill-fitting business suits. They look like shabby bank managers or backbench MPs. They preach that the world outside is hopeless, is doomed, and that they’re waiting not for heaven but for ‘the new system’ to arrive on earth; they keep people in because they make whatever’s out there look nothing like a haven or an escape. They drag people back by creating discord, creating voids that can only be filled by them. At one point Ivanna insists that Jehovah’s ‘love is conditional. He’s testing our strength’. It all looks and sounds very familiar.
Kokotajlo has made a film drawn from a deep well of first-hand experience about a cult from which he managed to escape. But it’s not a gimmick or a novelty, merely the Jehovah’s Witnesses movie. He’s a true director, and his experience has perhaps given him authority on the subject. He has more than just authority; wherever he got it from, he has a deep well of empathy and an honest approach to ingeniously slippery filmmaking. I’d have just as happily seen him tackle these, or other, themes from another angle, and know he’d have been capable of doing so. I’m not sure if I can bring myself to watch Apostasy again, but what a stunning debut, a splash of cold water on the sometimes sleepy face of British filmmaking.