You'd be hard pressed to recall many films made and shot in Oldham. It’s hardly a town renowned for its filmmaking prowess, but nonetheless it serves as the location for Apostasy, one of the best films released so far this year. Just as intriguingly, it is paired with a subject matter also rarely seen on screens in this or any other country, that of life inside the Jehovah Witness community.
And yet, bizarrely enough, it is the first of two British dramas set in a religious sect often ridiculed and derided, with Richard Eyre’s new film The Children Act also due for release in late August. What Apostasy holds as a distinct advantage is a writer-director who was raised as a Witness for the first 16 years of his life. This gives Daniel Kokotajlo’s debut film an authenticity that is immediately apparent even without knowing his personal history, offering a deeply nuanced and even handed view of a world outside of our everyday perspective.
Kokotajlo opens with the frame centred on 18-year-old Alex (Molly Wright), using an incredibly simple yet ingenious storytelling device that provides immediate insight into her thinking and backstory. It first appears as if her monologue is basic exposition but Kokotajilo returns to it a number of times later on, becoming a mechanism which takes us into the inner conflict of a girl working through a thought process filtered through Witness beliefs.
We are told Alex is anaemic and yet, as a Witness, she is forbidden to receive a blood transfusion, even in a life and death situation. Her mother Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) is unwavering in her commitment to the religion and won’t even contemplate the doctor’s medical advice. Alex is seen as the shining example of the next generation at their local Kingdom Hall (a place of worship) and she is also courting a new elder called Steven (Robert Emms), in a relationship that may be lacking passion but nonetheless feels innocently genuine in every respect.
Ivanna is a strict but loving mother of Alex and her older sister Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) and is patiently waiting for the “new system” to arrive (paradise after Judgement Day) - even if she's not sure what exactly it will be. There is no father to speak of and while his lack of presence is never mentioned it adds a quiet potency to the lifestyle Ivanna has chosen for her family. And yet, as organised and focussed as Ivanna believes their lives to be, there are some life changing incidents about to announce themselves that will shake up a seemingly secure family unit.
Kokotajlo shifts his focus across the lives of these three women to give each real meaning without feeling one is being given priority over the other. He guides his three leads to deliver exceptional performances along with a supporting cast that never once miss a beat. Finneran has been a stalwart presence on British TV for a long time and her experience shows with the composed restraint she gives to Ivanna, belying the deep-seated turmoil eating away at her very being. Ivanna’s devotion to her faith is no doubt a result of unspoken previous events and Finneran gives life to a woman who is being torn right down the middle.
Parkinson is probably best known for her time on Coronation Street but if this is anything to go by a long and healthy career in film awaits. She is asked to do most of the emotional heavy lifting in a role pivotal to the changing dynamics of the family. Although Wright has barely begun her life as an actress on any screen, it’s something you would never notice because of the shy delicacy she gives her character, remaining equally as restrained as her mother and sister.
By either discreetly fading to black or using title cards featuring Bible extracts, Kokotajilo’s script avoids cliché wherever it seems most likely to arrive. His own mother is still a Witness and there is no bitterness in how he writes the prominent characters featured in the Kingdom Hall, leaving us to pass our own judgement. In that sense there is a distinct European feel to both the writing and the cinematography handled by Adam Scarth. He shows us a world drained of vibrancy to the point of suffocation in places, at times positioning the camera at a higher, tilted angle down onto the women, placing us in a God-like position peering over their lives.
Apostasy played at last year’s London Film Festival but despite critical acclaim the lack of buzz surrounding it is mystifying, even on a more localised domestic scale. Not only is the direction and writing near flawless, the intelligence of the drama is one made all the more rich by perfect casting all round. It is unflinching in its willingness to tackle the concept of unconditional faith and yet does so without hammering home its message. As far as debut films go, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better one released in any given year.