09th Jul2019

EIFF 2019: ‘Darlin’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Lauren Canny, Bryan Batt, Nora-Jane Noone, Cooper Andrews, Pollyanna McIntosh, John Spud McConnell, Geraldine Singer, Maddie Nichols, Mackenzie Michelle Graham, Jeff Pope, Eugenie Bonderant, Sabrina Gennarino, Thomas Francis Murphy | Written and Directed by Pollyanna McIntosh

darlin-poster

The debut feature from actor-turned-writer-director Pollyanna McIntosh (The Walking Dead), Darlin’ is a stand-alone sequel to Lucky McKee’s visceral 2011 horror The Woman, in which McIntosh starred as an imprisoned feral woman wreaking hell on her captors. McIntosh reprises the role here, but her film has both a different focus and a different sensibility, skilfully blending coming-of-age and horror tropes to entertaining effect.

The film begins with the still-feral, nature-dwelling Woman (McIntosh) bringing an equally feral young woman – Darlin’, played by Lauren Canny and so named for the bracelet around her wrist – to the door of a hospital and leaving her there, for reasons that will eventually become clear. Darlin’ can’t speak and behaves like a wild animal, but she nonetheless forms a bond with a kindly, gay nurse (Cooper Andrews, also from The Walking Dead), who places her with a Catholic boarding school for wayward girls.

Once there, Darlin’ finds sympathetic allies in fellow student Billy (Maddie Nichols) and Sister Jennifer (Nora-Jane Noone). However, she’s not so lucky with the creepy Bishop (Mad Men’s Bryan Batt), who intends to make himself rich and famous by documenting and publicising her “taming”. Meanwhile, when The Woman discovers that Darlin’ is no longer at the hospital, she embarks on a murderous, rage-fuelled rampage, intent on reclaiming Darlin’ at any cost.

Lauren Canny is terrific as Darlin’, equally convincing as both animalistic wild child and, later, as a naïve teenager who has to rapidly adjust to the ways of the world. She’s particularly impressive in her physicality, putting in a committed turn in terms of the way Darlin’ moves in the early stages. The film, in turn, has a nice handle on both her physical and psychological transformation, making it easy for the audience to invest in her progress, despite knowing that dark forces are afoot that might screw things up.

McIntosh is equally good in a role she’s already played to perfection, finding interesting new angles for the character to explore. There’s also likeable support from Andrews and Nichols, while Batt is clearly enjoying himself as the dubious Bishop – he hams it up slightly more than necessary, but he just about gets away with it.

As the film’s director, McIntosh has a tricky balancing act on her hands. Consequently, the horror and coming-of-age elements don’t always gel together as successfully as you might hope, but she ultimately pulls it together with a consistent tone, aided by notes of black humour that acknowledge the tongue-in-cheek aspect to the film’s more ridiculous moments.

Thematically, Darlin’ is surprisingly rich. The script takes on subjects as diverse as sexual awakening, the healthcare system, systemic abuse, the hypocrisy of the church, society’s attitudes to the marginalised and the uselessness of men in general. That it successfully scores as many points as it does without ever feeling preachy or patronising is a testament to the confidence of McIntosh’s script.

Crucially, the film also gets the gore element right. It might not be as stomach-churning as anything in The Woman, but it gets the job done, thanks to some impressive effects work.

Ultimately,Darlin’ marks an impressive feature debut for Pollyanna McIntosh. If, as the ending suggests, she’s not quite done with these characters yet, she might just have a mini-franchise on her hands.

**** 4/5

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