GFF20 Review: The Other Lamb

Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska directs The Other Lamb, based on a screenplay by Australian writer C.S. McMullen. The film takes a coming of age story laced with defiance and female unity and places it within the dynamics of a religious cult. Whilst Szumowska fills the film with striking visual imagery, there is not a massive amount of narrative weight to sink your teeth into here.

The Shepherd (Michiel Huisman) leads a self-sufficient community hidden in the woods, free from modern technology. Each of the many female members of the group is either his wife or daughter. Selah (Raffey Cassidy), a headstrong elder daughter of the group, begins to question his teachings as the group are forced to seek a new home after the authorities evict them.

The Other Lamb is a quiet film seeking to explore the personality dynamics and balance of power and control within the cult. Unlikely to be described as a horror film, Szumowska does however manage to evoke subtle horrors in The Shepherd’s encounters with the women in his flock. The women become subjects of manipulation both sexually and ideologically with their leader brainwashing them with his charisma, looks, and confident demeanour. The passage of daughters into wives also evokes troubling connotations and undoubtedly ensures the film is perfectly befitting for a contemporary self-aware audience, resonating with current social and political issues in regards to gender and male abuse of power.

Cinematographer Michal Englert captures an isolated beauty, hauntingly so, in the forest community established by the cult. Wooden huts, rural teaching enclosures covered in web-like string, and the surrounding forestry gives the film a sparse naturalistic feel, enhancing the community’s isolation from the rest of contemporary society. As the women and their leader leave the quiet safety of their forest home, Englert and  Szumowska capture the dangers of the outside world and the natural environment in the vast rural weather-beaten expanses – making the most of the film’s evocative Irish locations.

The heart of the film lies within Selah and her coming of age story. Tasked with tending the birth of new lambs, Selah accidentally falls asleep leading the death of the lamb. What follows are continuous metaphors using the concept of sheep and flocks, the death of the lamb representative of Selah’s discontent and growing concern about the teachings and abusive practices of The Shepherd. Imagery hammering home this message begins as somewhat visceral and striking, but wears thin through its continuous repetition. Whilst Raffey Cassidy brings a humanity to the proceedings and captures Selah’s quiet unrest, the metaphorical imagery and somewhat sluggish narrative frustrate.  Huisman is impressive as The Shepherd capturing the sense of a man clinging to control in a calm, yet ultimately concerned manner.   

Bold visceral (but repetitive) imagery and rural locations give The Other Lamb an impressive aesthetic clout and there is much contemporary resonance to be found in the performances and subtext of the film. Its slow pace and overreliance on that very imagery that initial shines lets The Other Lamb down somewhat.