Director Philip Stevens doesn’t waste a second in plunging us into the world of his debut feature, Lapwing. It’s spelt out on a black screen. The year is 1555, early in the rein of Mary Tudor who, just months earlier, passed the Egyptian Act, banning gypsies and travellers in general from living in England. Those that arrived had just one month to leave or risk execution, and anybody in their company or giving them shelter would be similarly treated. From that moment on, what is a small story set in a lesser known corner of history, never lets go of its connections to the present day.
Life for working people in Tudor England is hard, brutal even, and even tougher for Patience (Hannah Douglas) who is barely able to speak. She has an isolated existence with her sister Lizzie (Sarah Whitehouse) and her salt farmer husband, David (Emmett J Scanlan) but a glimmer of hope comes the girl’s way when she meets Rumi (Sebastian de Souza), a gypsy whose family has paid David for passage on a ship out of the country. It’s a forbidden relationship, one that incurs David’s wrath when it comes to light and reveals his darker, violent side, one that initially crushes Patience until she can take no more …..
In today’s parlance, David is a people trafficker – and more. The self-appointed head of the small, family group, he sees himself as a quasi-religious leader: a huge crucifix is positioned so that it overlooks and dominates the group’s tents. No matter where they are, they can always see it. It further strengthens the story’s connections with today, as do the racial attitudes that simmer under the surface but soon come to the fore once Rumi and his family appear. And they never go away. Yet the irony is that the boy treats Patience with more respect and care than she’s ever experienced in her short life.
Intense and dour, Lapwing defies the conventions of the period with its determinedly female centric approach, one reminiscent of others such as Fanny Lye Deliver’d, which is set during the Cromwellian era. And despite a micro budget which shows at times, it’s impressively effective at creating an increasingly foreboding atmosphere with its combination of a stark, isolated landscapes and David’s ruthlessness (a strong performance from Scanlan). The landscape has its beauty all of its own as well, a gift to cinematographer Stewart MacGregor, who makes the most of the sunsets, cloud formations and lighting contrasts to give us strikingly solitary figures on the coastline alongside delicate studies of the grasses and water.
Much, however, hinges on Douglas’ performance as Patience and she’s more than up to the task. With little or no dialogue to work with – what she believes are private attempts at singing are the closest she gets to forming words, earning her the nickname of the title – her expressive eyes and features come into their own, conveying her torment, anger and remarkable resilience with a powerful clarity. A film that aims to punch above its weight, it succeeds in the main, with lean storytelling, memorable visuals, gripping central performances and a debut director whose style pulls no punches. Stevens is a name to watch out for.
Drama, Historical | Cert: 18 | Bulldog Film Distribution | Cinemas, 26 November 2021 | Dir. Philip Stevens | Hannah Douglas, Emmett J Scanlan, Sebastian de Souza, Sarah Whitehouse.