Canadian acting talent Amanda Brugel (The Handmaid’s Tale, Canada’s Drag Race) leads Ashgrove, a timely drama set amidst a global pandemic. With a narrative that examines fractured human relationships, whilst delivering well-pitched moments of intrigue, Ashgrove is an effective glimpse into individuals pushed to their limits.
Written by Jeremy LaLonde (who also directs), Jonas Chernick (who also stars) and Amanda Brugel, Ashgrove opens amidst a pandemic which has affected the world’s water supplies. With an estimated five years until humans can no longer survive, top scientist Jennifer Ashgrove (Brugel) is hit with a revelation – the breakthrough cure. On her way to share the joyous news, Jennifer blacks out, waking up with no recollection of her discovery. Forced to step back from her stress-inducing professional role, the scientist and her husband Jason (Chernick) attempt to recuperate at their rural farmhouse for a weekend of re-connection. Yet cracks in their marriage soon rise to the surface – issues that may jeopardise the world’s escape from the pandemic.
Despite the high stakes at the core of Ashgrove – we’re informed the water pandemic has led to sixty million deaths with mankind’s extinction looming – the feature carefully wraps these in a incredibly grounded, human story. Ashgrove sets its pandemic in an otherwise eerily normal world where farmers’ markets are filled with fresh produce, humans generally interact with one another as normal, and life otherwise seems to be ticking along calmly. The effect of this is an impressive one that views the stresses and pressures of the pandemic through the relationships and behaviours of its characters – avoiding traditional cinematic clichés of mass panic, looting and chaos. This keeps Ashgrove grounded and quietly absorbing – perhaps not delivering what many venturing into a film about a water-centred pandemic may expect.
The paradox at the heart of Ashgrove sees Jennifer forced to relax and unwind after her blackout – yet this is something that only further drives her stress. Stepping back from her previously all-consuming research and facing her home life head-on seems more of a threat to Jennifer than the pandemic. As Ashgrove locates to the rural farmhouse setting, it soon becomes clear that Jennifer and Jason have grown further apart throughout the pandemic, struggling to gel back together as a couple. Jennifer is resentful of Jason’s slow work ethic (citing that it took him ten years to publish his novel), whilst Jason is isolated and navigating life in the regular absence of his partner. The writers carefully highlight the growing distance between the couple with a lingering tension, also perfectly exemplified by impressive performances from Brugel and Chernick who capture the emotional distance through well-pitched body language, line delivery and uncomfortable glances. There is a sense of hopefulness that trickles throughout Ashgrove, with moments of sweetness between Amanda and Jason giving some semblance of the bond between the couple such as when they share a romantic moment on a porch swing.
LaLonde’s directorial style is quietly naturalistic as it captures claustrophobic relationships in juxtaposing open rural surroundings. Cinematographer Robert Scarborough captures these bright and airy locations with a visual elegance, further dispelling the traditional apocalyptic feel that a film in this context may suggest. Effective use of mirrors give a sense of Amanda’s inherent frustrations with her situation as the scientist attempts to grapple with momentarily stepping back from her high pressure role and gain a sense of control over her broken marriage. A well orchestrated dinner party scene with fellow married friends Sammy (Natalie Brown) and Elliot (Shawn Doyle) highlights further deeper challenges in the couple’s relationship.
Ashgrove’s last act makes some bold narrative shifts which inject a sense of urgency into the feature, making for a dramatic conclusion. Several sharp narrative developments help us re-evaluate previous scenes under a new perspective, whilst adding a fresh sense of creativity and intrigue to the feature that would undoubtedly allow it to benefit from repeated viewings.
Bolstered by a sterling lead turn from Amanda Brugel, Ashgrove flips our perceptions of the ‘pandemic drama’ presenting a naturalistic and emotional take on the every shifting nature of human relationships.