After the long-term care of her terminally ill suffering husband, he suddenly commits suicide right in front of her and right in front of their oldest daughter who just came home. Holly must now pull it together for her two teenage daughters, Betsey and Isabelle. Drowning in debt to maintain a wealth front of normalcy, Holly puts on the facade to juggle life’s adversities to order to keep the family above water, but when Betsey is overcome by an apocalyptic vision that intermittently possesses her behavior, Holly’s unsure of how to cope as any threats of committing Betsey for treatment is rebutted by talks of suicide. Betsey goes into deep trances, deep sleeps, and won’t eat despite not losing any weight and as imaginations run wild of what’s driving her unusual behavior, Holly must contend to survive and triumph not only in her daughter’s wellbeing but in all of the seemingly insurmountable problems threatening to tumble down and crush her spirit.
If you’re a fan of elevated horror then Ruth Paxton’s debut dysfunctional family drama horror, “A Banquet,” will tickle your thinking pickle. While some would argue there is no need for elevated horror in the genre, sometimes exercising the old thinker can be immensely stimulating as well as scary in the same breath. The 2021 psychological thriller-horror hailing from the United Kingdom was one of the first productions shot in the thick of government issued pandemic lockdowns that tossed the moviemaking job market into a frenzy, scary void of uncertainly and, what seemed like, an eternal limbo, similar to what “A Banquet” offers in its multifarious themes and interpretations that involve faith and religion, family hierarchy, and postural image. With many departmental crews and cast out of a job and unable to find work during forced lockdowns, “A Banquet” became a beacon of hope and a chance to indulge a passion no matter how little it paid. “A Banquet” is penned by Justin Bull (“Merge”) and was secured by first time producer Leonora Darby with Nik Bower (“Replicas”), James Harris (47 Meters Down”), Mark Lane “Cockneys vs Zombies”), and Laure Vaysse (“A Dark Place”) co-producing the conglomerated production from HanWay Films, Riverstone Pictures, Tea Shop Productions, and Reliance Entertainment Productions 8 LTD.
“A Banquet” surrounds around a nuclear family minus the patriarch who immediately removed from the picture within the first five-minute opener in a powerful scene of weary difficulty, distressing pain, and a harsh untethering of a burden that begins the inklings of the uncanny to come. Enter mother Holly (Sienne Guillory, Paul W.S. Anderson’s “Resident Evil” franchise) and her two daughters, Betsey (Jessica Alexander) and Isabelle (Ruby Stokes), into the frame weeks, maybe months later, and resided to the loss. Playing the center of concern is the raven-haired Jessica Alexander in what is one of her first feature film performances and it’s a doozy. As Betsey, a mild-manner older teenage girl at the forefront of adulthood, Alexander earns the chance to showcase herself in a variety of ways with a role that transcends from a docile daughter to a variable vessel of unknown origin that’s haunting and unpredictable as you can never tell what’s taken control over Betsey is naturally good or evil. Alexander even gets to dip her toes into, or rather dig her fingers into, gross and horrifying practical effects with brilliant results. Opposite Alexander in the role of the mother, Holly, is Sienna Guillory, a beguiling veteran actress now in the throes of maintaining the routine and keeping appearances aggregated up to snuff. Guillory exudes a bottled-up pressure that’s so immense it can be translate right off the screen and into the viewer. There’s plenty of tension in the story but most of it is concentrated right on Guillory’s embodiment of a mother treading desperately in deep waters. A maelstrom of frustration, fear, loathing, and neglect eviscerate Holly open to shoulder her family’s bleeding and she claws frantically, with poise, to cauterize the fissure. Isabelle is a fascinating and almost unintentionally forgotten character that is meant to evoke that effect as the neglected younger sister. While we’re constantly orbiting Holly and Betsey’s, we lose track of Ruby Stokes’s Isabelle yet the upcoming star for Netflix’s “Lockwood and Co.” Stokes paints a potent psychological picture of Isabelle being on the backburner. Raw and tragic, Stokes subtly pushes Isabelle, who initially is the more cavalier and disobedient of the two sisters, to strive for attention in her own way whether be that longing glance into the stands when her mother isn’t paying her mind during figuring skating instruction or wanting to reluctantly engage in alcohol and sex just to outlet that notice me energy elsewhere. Concluding this bloodline of women is the more draconian matriarch, Grandmother June, with an uncompromising and plain-spoken fascia erected by Lindsay Duncan (“Body Parts”). Duncan’s fine snide performance compounds the pressure on Holly and is a cold bucket of ice water to her granddaughters when speaking her mind, telling them simply stop pretending, and remind them of their mother’s own historical mental problems in a matter-of-fact tone. Between the four, there’s individualistic dominance over each of their domain without an ounce of withdraw or relief until the bitter end and that dreadful dynamic sets the tone for the “A Banquet” austere veneer and tone.
“A Banquet” is a lot to unbox and chew on in this women-driven created film. Open for a many number of interpretations, based on one own’s spiritual outlook or personal opinions, Ruth Paxton tees up a broader theme of centrical growth of stepping outside another’s shadow. The message can be applied to Holly and her two daughters as each one of them attempts to move forward or past a routine of some form of contempt. Isabelle is trying to get out of her sister’s shadow, Holly bristles against her overbearing mother, and Betsey is being supernaturally guided through a symbolically painful transition of growing up into an adult as if the process came naturally. Blunt defiant moments shine Betsey’s overall separation from mother’s control, such as threatening to kill herself if her mother institutionalizes her or in during the number of elaborately prepped dinners that Holly slave over are just pushed aside and untouched by Betsey. Those dinners, in themselves, are a sign of privileged with fine dining right at their fingertips with no sign of hot dogs or sloppy joes in sight. Holly strives to maintain that sense of luxury, which is another form of control but, in this case, is Holly’s mother June whose elitist fundamentals enslave Holly to live up to the hype. Systematically, each member of the family, working up the ladder from youngest to oldest, breaks the inherent status quo. What Betsey undergoes is mystically charged after she emerges from the woods a changed woman and what might seem like a possession of sorts, we don’t exactly know if the extent of what inhabits her is wicked or actually good as the pendulum sways constantly between being enlightened and being cursed. There’s plenty of allusions toward a religious experience with encouragement of faith and rapture talk that not only spooks Holly but also makes her the primary subject of Betsey’s claim to save. When the time does come, and Betsey passes through a substitutionary atonement, the end scene shows Holly being embraced by a candescent light that illuminates from within her. Is it being saved or is it something else? Ruth Paxton smashes her first feature with an elevated deconstruction of a family obliviously rotting at the core and attacks the film with dispirited ambiance sewn to dread.
Feast your eyes on the new limited-edition Blu-ray set of Ruth Paxton’s “A Banquet” from Second Sight films. The region B, PAL encoded UK boxset presents the film in 1080p widescreen 2.39:1 aspect ratio with a frame rate of 23-24 fps. David Liddel’s deep and encroaching cinematography of somber is highly effective in dulling out any kind of hope that might try to sneak in and with Liddel’s close-to-mid shots of macro-sized foods of all fresh and decaying varieties and in the middle of the more volatile struggles between mother and daughter opens up “A Banquet” to a plethora scene being uncomfortable moments. Details are sharp and colors are about as rich as Liddel can make them inside a grey-covered world. The English language set comes with two audio options: a DTS-HD 5.1 and a LPCM 2.0 stereo. DTS is clearly more robust through the various channels with a well-balanced mix. Other than a few outlier moments in the forest that disperse the dialogue in a naggingly boxy echo that doesn’t fit the environment, dialogue is discerningly clean and clear of obstructions and damage, as if there would be any on a digital record. Optional English subtitles are also available. Bonus material includes an interview with director Ruth Paxton Deformity of the Flesh on creating her first film during the height of the pandemic, an interview with star Jessica Alexander Improvised Exorcism in which she discusses her experience soup-to-nuts from hiring to completion, an interview with producer Leonora Darby Producing a Feast who notes about the difficulties of being a first-time producer in pandemic time, an interview with cinematographer David Liddel Dark Edges on how he creates “A Banquet’s” gloomy aura and creative shooting angles, the Q&A from Glasgow Film Festival with Paxton, Alexander, and Sienna Guillory, and a making of featurette. The limited-edition physical boxset is a sturdy vessel of beauty with a rigid slipcase with new artwork by Jen Davies, a 56-page soft cover picture and essay book with thoughtful examinations by novelist Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (“1000 Women in Horror”), film critic and writer Jennie Kermode, and Heather Wixsn, the managing editor of the Daily Dead. The contents round out with 6 collectable art cards. The film has a runtime of 97 minutes and is certified 15 for strong threat, language, suicide, self-harm, and drug misuse. “A Banquet” is lavishly cataclysmic as a divinely damning dish of a broken, dysfunctional family made to order by first time director Ruth Paxton with more to say.