Sunday 28 October 2012

The Holding (2011)

Director: Susan Jacobson
Stars: Kierston Wareing, Vincent Regan, David Bradley, Terry Stone and Skye Lourie
This film was an official selection at Phoenix FearCon V in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my festival reviews.
While some have dismissed The Holding as being merely an English version of The Stepfather, I see that reading as rather unfair and strongly suggest that it shouldn't be ignored that easily. It does follow a similar sweep, with a stranger coming into a young woman's life because he wants to be part of a perfect family, and it acknowledges the similarity with a couple of overt homages, but it's much more of a feminist response than a mere rerun through the material. In particular, the lead character of Cassie Naylor is a long way from being a victim. She's a strong woman, so much so that I'm unsurprised to see that the film's director is a woman, although the writer isn't. What's more, there are deliberate pains taken to blur the traditional killer/victim roles, which are interchangeable here, as we're shown that the killer is also a victim and the victim also a killer. I appreciated this depth to familiar material, and surely I can't be alone.

Kierston Wareing is dominant as Cassie Naylor, a small but strong leading lady. There's softness in her, but it's buried deep as she's had to be strong for a long time. She hunts, she farms and she runs the business of the title, a holding in the English Peak District. She's a single mum, with two daughters to bring up on her own, as her abusive husband Dean has 'left'. Obviously she's used to taking the lead and doing what needs to be done, whatever it takes. In fact, that's how we know that Dean hasn't just left, because the opening scene clearly shows Cassie killing him. Why she does this isn't made clear until later in the story and she's shown in a sympathetic light throughout, but we know from moment one that she's a killer and her guilt flavours everything that follows. So does her doubt, as eight months on we find that even with their biggest problem supposedly taken care of, life didn't magically fix for the Naylors.

Cassie is finding it tough to keep the holding going financially and tough to stop her family from falling apart. Her eldest daughter, Hannah, ably puts it into words. 'We're not exactly a family,' she tells her mum, 'just three people who live together.' What's more, Karsten Rabe, her nearest neighbour, really wants to buy her place, going as far as to propose marriage if that would only do the trick. He's polite enough to begin with, but he escalates nastily, killing one of her calves and blocking her way off her own property. Into this mess comes Aden, a stranger who claims he knew Dean a long time ago and happened to be in the vicinity so thought he'd look him up. He proves useful immediately, saving a pregnant cow and her calf, and promptly offers to help out wherever he can. He talks Cassie into letting him work there for a month, in return for room and board, but of course soon becomes much more than that. You know how that goes in movies.

In most films, Aden would be the lead. He's big, strong and able, and he's the element of change in the story. Vincent Regan, yet another actor who exchanged substantial experience on British television for supporting roles in Hollywood, shows that he's a force to be reckoned with, not just as a tough guy, but as a flawed individual. Aden is an interesting character, as he deteriorates as we learn more about him. Initially he's the saviour of the day, equally at home delivering calves, cleaning gutters and responding to threats. He makes a quick connection with Cassie's youngest daughter, Amy, who sees him as an angel sent from God. We know he has an agenda, but with each hint as to what it is, he decreases in worth even as he increases in menace. By the end of the film, he's a ludicrous creature, unable to forge his own destiny and shed a definition that was forced on him by his upbringing. He's as much a victim as he makes others. He's just a cycle.
Here, Cassie is always the lead. She's always stronger than Aden, except physically. It's telling that the moment he steps over the line, she ushers him out at the end of a shotgun. I wonder if director Susan Jacobson has had any feedback from battered women who have watched her film, because I have a feeling they'd identify very strongly with it. They'll take a lot, especially when their oppressor is physically stronger than they are, but eventually they won't take any more and they'll prove that strength is far from only physical. There are points here that are overtly fuelled by testosterone but, if you pay attention, you'll see that it's the women calling the shots, even in the roles of victims. Once we learned a few key facts, it was clear where the film had to go and how it had to end, and that's exactly what happened. Yet, that isn't a bad thing, it's a good thing as most films play to convention with concepts like damsels in distress and lucky accidents.

The other reason this plays to me as such a feminist piece stems from what might appear to be a throwaway line given to a supporting character named Coop. Overtly, he's just an employee, the only one, but he's really Cassie's rock and he's been instrumental in keeping the holding open, all the way down to freeing it of her husband by helping her kill him. Late in the film he talks about the idea of moving on and how it always comes down to people and the secrets they keep unspoken. Of course, we know what secrets he's talking about, but his words are prophetic and firmly mark the moment at which real healing begins in this film. David Bradley, who plays Coop, is a highly experienced television actor, albeit one probably best known for playing Argus Filch in seven of the eight Harry Potter movies. He's a quiet presence throughout this film, with little to do but all of it important, and he's very much its key.

I can understand how those who read this as a straight thriller might be disappointed. From that perspective, it would be an unimaginative piece with a weak villain, a victim who refuses to play ball and overly quick, albeit brutal, scenes of violence. What I can't understand is how they can fail to see the depths here. None of these characters are throwaway. Cassie and Aden obviously carry baggage, but Hannah and Amy carry no less. Coop has depth, Karsten has depth, even Jed the local cop has depth. I appreciated Jarrod Cooke as a very British cop, who knows his beat and the people in it, who commands respect because he cares. This film isn't flawless, as Maisie Lloyd shows some inexperience as Amy, Hannah is too stereotypically written and a few lesser characters are poorly built but these are minor compared to the subversive take on the familiar. This deserves better than it's got and it could be valuable viewing for a lot of abused women.

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