Anchoress, Chris Newby’s debut feature, is based on a true story, that of the Anchoress of Shere (near Guildford in what is now Surrey). In the year 1329, fourteen-year-old Christine Carpenter (Natalie Morse) receives visions of the Virgin Mary. On the advice of her local priest (Christopher Eccleston), she volunteers to become an anchoress: to be walled up in a small cell adjoining the parish church, there to lead a life of piety and solitude.At a time when options for women were limited, the position of anchoress was an attractive one in several ways, especially for those who did not want to follow the traditional path of marriage and motherhood - and the risk of early death in childbirth.One of the themes of Anchoress is the conflict between patriarchal authority and the women who are subjugated by it. The priest claims the authority of the church, but he has a mistress. The Reeve (Eugene Bervoets, whom you may recognise as the hapless lead in the original The Vanishing) owns the land where Christine and her family and friends work: he marries Christine's sister when Christine becomes immured and hence unavailable. In opposition to them both is Christine's pagan mother Pauline (Toyah Willcox, in her best screen role). And at the centre is a girl, emerging into womanhood.
Made in black and white, shot on location in Belgium, and dealing explicitly with issues of religious faith and religious hypocrisy. Anchoress is one of those singular films that British cinema throws up every now and again. The fact that Newby has, to date, only made one more feature (Madagascar Skin in 1995), is a testament to the difficulty in sustaining directorial careers in Britain, especially if you make films in an arthouse tradition rather than in commercially recognisable genres. Newby is hardly alone: Ben Hopkins is a not dissimilar British filmmaker, and that’s not to forget older directors like Terence Davies (whose Of Time and the City was his first film in eight years) and Peter Greenaway (who continues to work but whose new films are no longer distributed in his home country). There are many other British directors active today who have made just one or two big-screen features and now work on television.
Written by Judith Stanley-Smith and Christine Watkins, Anchoress does tell a straightforward story. Its pace is measured (as is appropriate for the time when it is set) but the film is not overlong. Credit must be given to Michel Baudour’s camerawork and Niek Kortekaas’s production design for the film's look, but shot after shot shows that Newby is a real film-maker. You feel the narrow confines of Christine’s cell, and her sense of liberation when out in the open is one of the more striking scenes in the film. There's an eye for detail, and for the expressive faces of the leading cast, that adds to the film's effect.
Newby’s film had a limited release to middling reviews back in 1993. Apart from a Channel 4 showing, it has fallen into neglect ever since. I was aware of the film but had not seen it before this DVD release. I had seen Madagascar Skin (also on DVD), but I prefer this film to it. It stands up very well, sixteen years after its first showing, and full marks to the BFI for rescuing it from obscurity.
Anchoress is released by the BFI on a single disc encoded for Region 2 only. (It's noticeable, given his higher profile sixteen years on, that Eccleston gets more prominence in the packaging than Willcox and Bervoets, who have higher billing than him in the film credits.)
The DVD transfer is in the ratio of 1.66:1 (not 1.78:1 as it says on the box) and anamorphically enhanced. It's a very fine transfer, from a 35mm interpositive. Contrast, so important in a black and white film, is spot-on. Blacks are solid, whites as they should be, and there's a plethora of shades of grey in between. The feature and two of the three shorts were transferred in high definition, and it will disappoint some that the BFI is not releasing Anchoress in Blu-ray, at least not yet.
Anchoress was released in cinemas with a Dolby Stereo soundtrack. The film was made before digital soundtracks became ubiquitous, and normally this would be rendered on disc as a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix, which plays as Dolby Surround with your amp set to ProLogic. However, the BFI have transferred it as a lossless LPCM surroundtrack, with a particularly high bitrate of 2304 kbps. The opening credits sequence is a demonstration of how layered the soundtrack is, with surround-sound church bells giving way to insect noises. Newby has an acute ear for what this pre-industrial medieval world would sound like.
Subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are provided for the feature only. The three short films directed by Newby which are included on this DVD have no dialogue. They begin with the The Old Man of the Sea (20:49). The oldest (made 1989) and longest of the three shorts here, this was shot, like Anchoress in 35mm black and white and is presented anamorphically in a ratio of 1.66:1. It's the nearest of the three to a conventional narrative, with a cast of two and a heavily homoerotic atmosphere (also present in Madagascar Skin, less in evidence in Anchoress). It also displays an eye for textures that is very much present in Anchoress, something that is if anything enhanced by the use of black and white. The other two shorts are more akin to visual poems: Flicker (4:31), shot in 16mm in 2001, is an impressionistic look at Bonfire Night in Lewes, while Stromboli (10:54), from 1997, also in 16mm, is a piece about the island of the title, and its famous, continually-active volcano. Both of these are presented in 4:3. The Old Man of the Sea and Flicker were transferred in high definition, Stromboli in SD PAL.
Finally, the BFI have provided their usual detailed booklet. It begins with an essay by Michael Brooke on the film, statements by the director and the writers, historical notes including reproductions of the documents relating to the real Anchoress, a biography of Newby, full credits to the feature and the shorts, and notes by Brooke to the latter. All well reading: my only nitpick is that some pages have white text on a silver background, which I found hard to read.