If the point of Apostle was to purge Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey, then it has more than succeeded. While boasting some fine mythology and disturbing reflections on mankind’s love for inflicting pain, Gareth Evans’ bonkers folk horror suffers from a weak script, a shoddy supporting cast, hideous violence, a lamentable lack of subtlety and the stupidest ending in the history of the world.
Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens) is a tormented soul with a mysterious past (sigh). When his sister Jennifer is kidnapped and held to ransom by a mysterious cult, Thomas’ father sends him to Erisden (a secluded island where the cult hang out) to find her and bring her back. When Thomas arrives, he finds the inhabitants entirely in thrall to their leader, Prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen), a badly-shaven fanatic with a cane and a dream of an equal society led by compassion. Thomas doesn’t have to spend much time on the island before he realises that while Malcolm may be a prophet, it is not to the Christian God that he pays homage. Devotees wear creepy festival masks and place glasses of blood outside their doors each night, while livestock are born with hideous deformities and crops turn to ashes instead of growing. Guided by his own tenacity, and by Prophet Malcolm’s daughter (sigh) Andrea (Lucy Boynton), Thomas has to save his sister and hopefully, at some point, discover the identity of ‘Her’, the mysterious specter whom the cultists refer to as ‘our lady’.
Dan Stevens gives a solid performance as Thomas and is as compelling to watch as ever. His utter devotion to the role makes the character’s various issues both convincing and realistic and the film’s ridiculous ending seem less stupid than it actually is. Michael Sheen is all creepy charisma as Prophet Malcolm and delivers a performance that competently balances restraint and the insanity of fanaticism.
The shenanigans that go on in this film might just be believable if the supporting actors were as capable as the leads. Lucy Boynton as Andrea and Kristine Froseth as the sweet and sinful Ffion are memorable only for their striking beauty and Bill Milner’s Jeremy is only interesting by virtue of his rather baroque death (see trailer). The other supporting actors are so nondescript and so soul-crushingly one-dimensional that it is often difficult to distinguish who is who. There are two guys called Frank and Charles who pop up every now and again and do things, though I still can’t remember which one is Frank and which one is Charles and what exactly it is that they do. A similar foggy haze surrounds Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones), whose character undergoes a turning point in the film’s third act. This plot twist is clearly supposed to be a shocker, but its efficacy is marred somewhat by the fact that we’re too busy asking ‘Who’s this guy again?’ to have the time to be shocked.
Apostle‘s script is terrible. Most of the plot has been lifted from The Wicker Man, and the bits that have been filled in make you wish you really did have an appointment to keep with a giant burning effigy. Clichés and tiresome predictability are packed together like sausages, and it’s obvious from the dialogue’s awful melding of contemporary and Victorian English that Gareth Evans has absolutely no idea how people spoke in 1905 and did not take the trouble to find out.
The script must also take responsibility for the film’s lack of subtlety and its reliance on the kind of violence that makes Games of Thrones look like Sesame Street. Maybe I’m too much of a fan of Lovecraftian horror, but Apostle‘s insistence on showing us absolutely everything leads to a train-wreck of missed opportunities. The portrayal of ‘Her’, for instance…it’s difficult to describe without giving too much away, but let’s just say that I haven’t laughed so much since the ghosts in Crimson Peak. This could easily have been avoided had ‘she’ simply been left to the imagination. The human mind can sup full with horrors if left to its own devices. Then there’s the violence. It is not only horrible to watch, but is only present in order to preserve shock value in a way that contributes nothing to the plot. Without the horrors of ritual mutilation, sacrifice, drilling holes in people’s brains and hoisting them into the air on meat hooks, Apostle does not have much left and is left looking like it has nothing else to offer.
Oddly enough, Apostle does have something else to offer. This is so surprising that I can’t help but wonder if it happened by accident. The mythology surrounding the story of ‘Her’ is interesting, suitably mysterious and full of potential. The preparation and setting out of the nightly offerings of blood (and the acceptance of said blood) is genuinely haunting, and the whole film would have benefited had more such moments been present. The central themes of God and mankind’s love for the infliction of pain highlight the dangers of religious fanaticism with moderate success, and if one tries really hard, it is possible to distinguish an environmental message hidden somewhere in the mire.
Apostle makes for a halfway-satisfying afternoon on the couch, but doesn’t stay with you for long after the last few seconds leave you wondering ‘what in the actual fuck?’ Do yourself a favour, and watch The Haunting of Hill House instead.