The Isle Review
The quiet resurgence of British and Irish folk horror has been something of a boon to a genre that is currently producing some of the most exciting cinema around. To live up to the likes of Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England and Corin Hardy’s The Hallow is no mean feat, but with an intriguing blend of myth and tragedy, The Isle, directed by Matthew Butler-Hart, is a brilliant little blast of cold, unnerving air.
Three merchant sailors, Gosling (Alex Hassell), Ferris (Fisayo Akinade), and Bickley (Graham Butler), are shipwrecked off the coast of a Scottish island. They are taken in by a local man (Conleth Hill) and his daughter, Lanthe (Tori Butler-Hart). The sailors are warned not to travel too far alone and at night, but they soon discover that the island’s population has fled and the inhabitants they’ve met are the only ones who have stayed behind.
The folkloric aspect of the film is immediately apparent when its epigraph links to the mythological figure of the siren, a woman whose song would lure unwitting sailors onto the rocks that would shipwreck them. Odysseus famously had an encounter with the sirens, plugging his ears with wax and tying himself to the ship’s mast in order to survive. It didn’t go so well for the rest of his crew however. There are references to other myths too; Persephone and Hades, a dash of The Aeneid. The film might be set in the 19th century, but these references give it a kind of timeless quality, as if the island itself is frozen in place.
With a low budget that undoubtedly restricted the kind of effects the crew could produce, The Isle rather cleverly relies on its soundscape to craft its atmosphere and tension. The evocative folky aspect of Tom Kane’s score ties into the mythological aspect to the island’s mysteries as well as tying it into the Scottish landscape. Fittingly, voices are used for the siren’s song, which is never quite heard clearly, but nevertheless feels ever present. It ramps up the threat of a man walking alone in the woods, the closing in of the fog, and the crashing of the waves.
That is not to say the visual aspect of the film is neglected though. There’s a wonderfully creepy eye effect that signals a shift as well as some terrific physical performances from Tori Butler-Hart and Alix Wilton Regan. Director Matthew Butler-Hart utilises reflections and the depth of field within shots to add to the paranoid air. A figure lurks in the background and appears at one particularly memorable moment. It’s a film not over-reliant on jump scares, but when they arrive, they pack a punch.
There also some interesting underlying themes on female bodily autonomy and patriarchal insitutions; one is a threat to the status quo, the other is trying desperately to maintain it. This ties back into the mythology that the film draws on. Though I think it’s something that The Isle could have dug into a bit more, it adds a level of depth that lesser films would ignore in favour of shocks.
The Isle is an effective thriller that uses its low budget to its advantage, producing something that is high on atmosphere and intrigue. If you find yourself with a craving for nineteenth century fog and gothic tendencies, it might just be worth a visit.