This potent British drama takes a look inside the Jehovah’s Witnesses and shows a family torn apart by its rules.
Curzon Artificial Eye
Anaemic Alex (Molly Wright) is now eighteen and so as an adult Witness, gives her doctor permission to refuse her a blood transfusion, should the necessity arise. She was transfused as a baby and lives every day feeling guilty that she has someone else’s blood inside her. So she tries to be devout in the hope of salvation in ‘the new system’.
Her sister and fellow Witness Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) is less pious, not least because she is exposed to the wider world through her college course, whereas Alex is ensconced in the Witness movement, who have a gardening team. Luisa’s life is divided: she hides her faith from her college friends, and vice versa – when she gets pregnant by her Muslim boyfriend and refuses to try to convert him, her (presumably divorced) mother Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) is shocked that she didn’t even know that Luisa was seeing a ‘worldly’ boy.
Luisa then has to explain herself to the judgmental elders and is promptly dis-fellowshipped, meaning that even her sister and mother are not permitted to socialise with her, causing huge emotional strain for the family.
At one point, some children act out a scene where Solomon judges between two women who both claim a baby is hers, and famously rules to cut it in half to give the women half each. When it ends with the comment, “A true mother doesn’t let her baby die,” the line seems significant.
The film spends its latter stages following the relationship between the two mothers: Luisa (who now has a baby) and Ivanna, showing their responses to a family crisis.
Written and directed by ex-Witness Daniel Kokotajlo, the film has a point to make about rules versus the heart, and this is his dilemma: how to explain to viewers the key strange beliefs and practices of the sect early enough for the film to make sense, without it affecting his storytelling. Generally he succeeds, but conveying facts in a short space of time squeezes out a lot of normal family conversation and leads to some clunky dialogue (and it is not always clear when we are hearing Alex thinking).
The film shows differences between the sect and conventional Christianity in several of Ivanna’s lines, such as, “Blood is the life force; there is no soul” and – in a contrast with the Christian God of grace – “You need to earn his love, it’s conditional.”
The muted palette (offset by the red clad Luisa) implies the inhuman and life-draining effect of rules-based religion that so enraged Jesus. While this story is set around the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the same principle applies to any rules-based faith or philosophy that puts legalism above compassion.
Extras, which include cast interviews, a trailer and entirely unnecessary and pointless drone footage of the set, are of limited interest, with no specific background information given. It is more helpful that in audio commentary, Kokotajlo reveals background facts, such as how a sermon pointed insensitively at Ivanna was based on an actual JW talk. A featurette on the sect’s beliefs and why the film was written would have been worthwhile to explain more of the film’s raison-d’être.