The Winter Lake – Review

Directed by Phil Sheerin

Written by David Turpin

Ireland/Canada/2021/92mins

Rating: 3 out of 5.

In the solitude of the countryside, one often mistakes the harmonious landscape as safe and serene, unaware of the potential darkness lurking beneath the rolling hills and isolated beauty. It seems all too common that the bleak silence of rural life draws out the sinister sides of a person. Often people think this isolation makes the perfect place to conceal secrets, away from crowds and prying eyes. But in the absence of socialising, wandering eyes and lack of human contact strays the mind into unearthing things it ought not. And that’s the tricky situation with secrets – once they’ve been revealed, they cannot be undone.

For Tom and his mother, Elaine, this is a fresh start and chance to adjust to a new way of life. Traumatised and struggling, Tom finds it difficult to interact and make friends following the passing of his father – that is until meeting new neighbour Holly. And what’s not to love about her? Holly is clever, confident, and seems to connect with Tom, unlike many others he has met before. But as the shifting season’s winter brings with it a swirling lake that only appears with heavy rainfall, and with this unearths the hidden.

Ensuring the audience’s attention is rising newcomer and star of Sex Education Emma Mackey as Holly, swelling with a confidence which has grown and built, rather than been stapled on by writing. Holly isn’t perfect, has jagged edges and vulnerabilities but compliments Anson Boon’s Tom, and there’s an emerging desire to support Holly as the film progresses, which leads to an even larger letdown as Mackey departs the film early, petering out as the climax unfolds.

Mackey’s performance further enhances the silent approach which Boon brings to the film, who carries the role of a largely dialogue-free protagonist with relative ease. The outbursts of aggression overflowing in the direction of Tom’s well-meaning mother come across as natural, if tragic, in their accuracy. Boon reflects the film’s lack of a substantial score, allowing the howling winds or cascading rain for emotions to flourish rather than feel artificial.

Much of the film’s tension sits on the edge of a blade, with frequent bursts of hostility and violence occurring without grotesque showboating. Depictions of abuse and manipulation are present, but not less exploitative, discussed but without glamorising. What Tom uncovers within the lake is a distressing revelation, as is the history behind the discovery. Director Phil Sheerin understands this is what ties the characters together, more so than love, lust or hatred.

Floundering beneath the wealth of potential, the foundations of David Turpin’s screenplay sink under the weight of the mystery it manifests. As the noose tightens around the crux of the story, the film begins to fall flat. Characterisation mellows as The Winter Lake is unsure how to tie everything together and wrap up character arcs. What has enthralled audiences thus far was the enigma of the discovery and the unravelling of secrets. But as The Winter Lake begins to explain and find itself with no mystery left, it leaves itself with no appeal.

Where the film fails to grasp the steady evolution of tension and resolution, it understands the cinematic language of visual communications – if a touch on-the-nose. While the descent of villainy is established early in the horrific actions and past implications of characters, the gradual casting of shadows across faces as they reveal a more honest nature, rather than masquerading secrets, is effective if simplistic. The film’s cinematography not only grasps the glorious landscape but knows how to twist the beauty into unnerving solitude. Ruairí O’Brien deftly manipulates light to not only hide the truth but also reveal it as if both he and director Sheerin cast the landscape as it’s own entity – a monstrous fairy-tale villain in its own right.

Hiding behind atmosphere and sterling performances, The Winter Lake wastes tremendous potential as a quasi-fairy tale thriller. Its (limited) utilisation of film language, coupled with a natural flow of emotional conversation and performance lends to a tighter script that has a clearer idea of where it’s heading.

The Winter Lake will be available on Digital Download from 15th March

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