01st Nov2021

LFF 2021: ‘Shepherd’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Tom Hughes, Kate Dickie, Jamie Marie Leary, Greta Scacchi, Gaia Weiss | Written and Directed by Russell Owen

Tom Hughes plays a grieving widower who accepts a job as a shepherd on a remote Scottish island in the third feature from Welsh writer-director Russell Owen. The film is strong on creepy atmosphere and features a Kate Dickie performance for the ages, but it’s ultimately a little too cold for its own good and lacks emotional impact.

Shepherd centres on Eric Black (Tom Hughes), a young man haunted by the recent death of his wife (Gaia Weiss) in initially mysterious circumstances. After being rejected by his cold-hearted mother (Greta Scacchi), Eric accepts a job as a shepherd on a remote Scottish island, figuring that it might be good to get away from everything for a while.

An early warning sign occurs when Fisher (Kate Dickie), the ferrywoman tasked with showing Eric around his new island home, refuses to cross a line of seaweed running along the shore and drops enigmatic hints along the lines that he probably won’t last too long. Soon, the loneliness of the island sets in and Eric begins experiencing spooky goings-on. But is it the result of a supernatural presence, or is Eric losing his mind?

Grief, guilt and madness constitute familiar thematic ground for horror movies, so there’s an inherent pressure on the filmmaker to do something original and interesting with those ideas. That doesn’t really happen here, to the point where the audience will likely be ahead of any eventual reveals. For contrast, it’s worth noting that Shepherd is based on the same true story that inspired Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, a film that addressed those same themes – with a similarly isolated location, no less – in a way that felt truly original and distinctive.

That said, Shepherd does what it does very well. The remote location work is exceptional (it was shot on Scotland’s Isle of Mull, and in Great Orme Country Park in North Wales) and is clearly territory that Owen knows like the back of his hand, as he used the same Orme locations for his previous feature, Patients of a Saint. In partnership with cinematographer Richard Stoddard, Owen uses the locations to highlight the oppressive loneliness of the island, resulting in a suitably tense and creepy atmosphere that sustains the first half of the film.

That atmosphere is further heightened by some superb sound design work that puts every creak, squeak and shriek to good use, as well as knowing the value of an eerie silence. Also in the mix is an unsettling string-based score from Callum Donaldson that proves highly effective in key moments.

As for the performances, Hughes is on comfortable ground when it comes to icy intensity and he’s very good in the first half, where Eric is meant to be numb with grief and sadness. However, he’s less assured in the second half, which calls for a bit more emotion and the suggestion of a gradual descent into insanity.

Fortunately, Kate Dickie (who’s practically a patron saint of the independent British film industry at this point) is on hand with a highly enjoyable, perfectly pitched supporting performance, in which every line feels sinister or fraught with hidden meaning. Suffice it to say, she gets more to do than just ferry Eric to the island and bring his groceries every so often. Greta Scacchi is also excellent, but she’s sadly underused, which is a shame, because Eric being trapped on a remote island with his horrible mother could have made for a great movie.

*** 3/5

Shepherd screened as part of this years London Film Festival.

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