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Simon Read [Celluloid 06.25.19] horror

The sequel to Lucky McKee's 2011 film The Woman, (itself a sequel to 2009's Offspring) sees Pollyanna McIntosh returning to the role of The Woman, as well as taking up directing and writing duties. The films are based on a series of Jack Ketchum novels about a clan of violent feral cannibals who roam the northeast coast of America, clashing with so-called 'civilised' people - and often exposing them as the real monsters. Darlin' tries to capture some of the grim satire and feminist rage of McKee's film, but ultimately fails to live up to this promise.

In The Woman, McIntosh's eponymous cannibal was captured by an all-American family and chained up in their barn. It didn't end well for them. Now, it's eight years later, and we find McIntosh and her teenage 'sister' Darlin' (Lauryn Canny) visiting a Catholic hospital, where Darlin' is drugged by a panicking doctor after they become separated. She's held for observation and eventually sent to a convent to be looked after by a bishop (Bryan Batt) and his troupe of nuns. It's not going to end well for them.

Darlin' adapts to life in the convent, and even starts to take an interest in God. She makes friends with the other girls and they form their own kind of familial sisterhood. The bishop plans a baptism and elaborate communion for Darlin', and hopes media interest in her story will bring him fame and fortune as the man who has 'saved' her. Meanwhile, The Woman is searching for her lost sister, her journey bringing her into contact with a friendly male nurse (Cooper Andrews).

If there is one glaring flaw with Darlin' it is a sense of wanting to have its cake and eat it. The film takes aim at the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church (all bishops are lecherous paedophiles, all nuns are former prostitutes or recovering drug addicts, orphanages are rife with sadism and abuse, etc) and that's absolutely fine, but the approach here feels clumsy and predictable. If the film wanted to be seen as edgy and righteous, it ironically comes across as rather preachy and obvious. I don't expect nuance from a film about violent cannibals, but where a needle would work wonders, Darlin' uses a sledgehammer.

Too often I started to think about the internal logic of the film. Would a mute, mentally ill, and demonstrably traumatised child really be given over by authorities to a convent in which there were no specialists on site to deal with her condition? No, she probably wouldn't. Would she be taught alongside ordinary children even as she continued to show signs of aggression and extreme emotional instability? Would she be allowed to sleep in the same room as the other kids? No, and nope. Almost all the people in this film are complete idiots.

The film is so eager to drive home its point, to highlight the ugly side of organised religion (as in the previous film with the American nuclear family) that not only does it feel nonsensical at times, its characters are presented as almost comically evil. Bryan Batt as the bishop is so nakedly ambitious, so obviously twisted, that his status as a sexual pervert is assured in our minds' even before this trait is formally established in the narrative.

In The Woman, the father character played by Sean Bridgers is presented as a morally upstanding citizen. He's a family man and a well-regarded white-collar lawyer, so when the full extent of his own madness and staggering misogyny is revealed it acts as a sly twist: he is worse than the feral woman he is attempting to civilise. In the world of Darlin', there are no such ambiguities. Everyone is a caricature deserving of retribution, and this destroys any notion of suspense and tension. We watch Darlin's progress at the convent, we wait for The Woman to turn up and raise hell... and that's about it. A side-plot involving a group of eccentric homeless women is amusing, but only serves to take us out of the film.

As the character of Darlin', Canny shifts between brooding menace and bloody violence quite well, her behaviour mellowing by degrees as she settles into life in the Church, and we learn about her past. Of course, it's fun to see McIntosh reprising her role too - she doesn't hold back, and it's kind of nice just to see The Woman back in action again. Watching her sporting a pair of aviators as she stalks hospital corridors searching for her kin, one can't help but cheer her on. McIntosh proves a solid director, she has a good eye for compositions and there are several fun, violent set-pieces and neat musical montages. Overall though, the film never quite grows legs.

I wanted to like Darlin', which is sometimes not the best way to approach a film. I was looking forward to it, so I consciously cut it some slack even as its flaws became apparent. By the end I was beaten down by the film and had to admit that it did not work. The film buckles under its own scattershot approach to its targets, its lazy characterisation and lumbering narrative. There may be a good film in here somewhere, but darlin', this ain't it.

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Missphitts (3 years ago) Reply

Never saw Offspring but loved The Woman. Is it worth a watch? This one I'm not too excited about...

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