Ruth Paxton’s A Banquet takes us down a tragic voyage through the repercussions of loss with a family firmly teetering on edge. However, with that said, there are times it feels as if this psychological horror has taken on a touch more than it can handle, with you either leaving frustrated on content with what has been shown.
The recently widowed Holly (Sienna Guillory) is left to care for her two teenage daughters. Betsey (Jessica Alexander) is the oldest and becomes convinced that a ‘higher power has chosen her’. She stops eating but never loses weight. Does she have an eating disorder mental health issues, or is something else going on?
A Banquet is a hard film to tie down for several reasons, but with a movie like this, it is best to start at the beginning and goodness, what a beginning we get as we witness the pain, both emotionally and physically. We are given an opening that hooks us immediately and gives us a terrific platform to explore from. This horrifying nightmarish opening is almost a juxtaposition of what we get for the rest of Ruth Paxton’s film.
The rest of her feature debut is filled with atmospheric character building that other films dream of. We slip into this grieving family’s world to see how multiple generations of women come to terms with their grief and the ripple effects on each woman as they cope with their ever-darkening world. With threads of grief, obsession, jealousy, mental illness and repression, A Banquet has a lot on it’s plate (sorry). Add into this the idea of possession with Betsey, and it slowly becomes a film that is trying to juggle an awful lot of balls, and it does feel as though there is just too much going on.
Luckily it manages to do so thanks to everything in front and behind the camera. Our cast is superb, with Guillory as Holly having the task of grieving for her husband whilst also keeping the family dynamic together. She struggles with this, of course, as she can only do so much, and intending to keep her daughters emotionally safe and in a rigid structure, she has forgotten about herself. With Alexander (last seen in the terrific The Glasshouse) as Betsey, we have a girl who saw her father pass away and has to handle that now as well as discover and figure out what exactly she wants in her life while grieving. Not to mention all of the other issues a girl of her age must be going through. These mountain of problems overwhelm her and unsurprisingly so.
Then we have perhaps the unsung heroes of A Banquet in Ruby Stokes as the youngest daughter Isabelle and Lindsay Duncan as the matriarch June. While they have less screen time, they are no less powerful in their performances. Isabelle is a girl living in the shadow of a sister who is taking up all of the attention of their remaining parent and, as such, is feeling neglected, as if she is just expected to grow up quicker to help with what is happening in her own home. Whereas with June, she sees her daughter struggle, and we clearly see where the structure that Holly relentlessly focuses on comes from.
Combined, they bring the film to life with emotion, especially so when Paxton and her production designer Sofia Stocco give us as sanitised and cold a home to be in as you can imagine. Like the direction and camerawork, everything is exact and purposeful. We are never hurried here; from longer than expected scenes of food preparation coupled with extreme closeups, our senses are overwhelmed further with the excellent sound and score. Everything feels too close, as if we, like the characters, cannot escape it as our walls close in. Paxton has done some remarkable work here in layering her story for a debut feature, and from a technical standpoint, there is so much to love.
Then we have the strong script that connects our four women so well you feel each ounce of stress, isolation, grief, and anger throughout. Stokes has one moment that almost devastates you as she breaks and takes the situation naively into her own hands out of pure frustration with what is happening to her, her mother and then her sister. It becomes a fascinating watch when we see the dynamic between mother and eldest daughter, and eventually, the entire family continually change.
The main question for the audience is, what was going on with Betsey? Did something possess her during that red moon? Was she faking it all along just to get the attention that has been missing due to her mother focusing so much on their ill father? Or has her grief taken her with this food disorder that she seemingly has? We could even as if this is an issue hereditary from Holly due to her own past with mental illness.
We have so many options with religion even coming into the fold that you wonder if we maybe have too many. In truth, it could be an accumulation of all of the above. She could very well believe she has been chosen by a higher power while simultaneously keeping the truth from her mother, family and herself due to her mental illness caused by knowing how her father died, which has triggered the apparent food disorder.
As a result, some will be quite polarised by the film, which is perfectly fine. It is what you take from it due to personal experiences. The loss of a parent leaves a staggering after-effect on you; that is what comes from this critic’s personal experience. You worry about the very thing that caused that death, and it can take over your life. For someone as young as Betsey in the situation she was in, the danger of what happens was always going to be a possibility. That is what Paxton tries to hammer home to her audience. So there is a surety that many will have differing opinions on the point of this feature, which is excellent to think about.
However, as everything intensifies and the conclusion comes, you could be forgiven for feeling deflated by it. Everything has been built meticulously to this point, and we find ourselves almost stuck as Paxton resolutely refuses to sway in either direction of what has happened. This ambiguity will work for some as equally as it will frustrate others.
From a personal viewpoint, however, I have my inclinations of what the film meant and of its last reveals, but such is the work of Paxton that it allows you to come to your own conclusions, even if you wanted something a little less ambiguous. Yet, we know that in those final moments, Holly is genuinely lost. That is sometimes the beauty of cinema and films like this. They have you thinking, discussing. Not all endings need to be clear cut and while it would be great if they were, having us ponder for a moment is never a bad thing. If there are misgivings to A Banquet, it is with how many threads it tries to tangle into its well-made web.
Overall, A Banquet is a striking and atmospheric film you will watch. One with and one that takes a lot to process, for better or worse and at worst, have you talking about it with those who you watch it with. An interesting and worthwhile movie to watch.
A Banquet will be shown during the Glasgow Film Festival in person and digitally. The Saturday 5 March showing will be followed by a Q&A with Ruth Paxton and Sienna Guillory. For more information click here
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