The Winter Lake (2021)
Director: Phil Sheerin
Screenwriter: David Turpin
Starring: Charlie Murphy, Anson Boom, Emma Mackey, Michael McElhatton, Mark McKenna
A turlough is a type of lake that disappears and reappears, useful for burying unwanted things in the deep, usually in the hope that said things get sucked away with the water. But what happens when the lake gives it back? It’s reflective of how we process our emotions, be it grief, anger, or pain; you can hide these things in the depths of your mind, but it doesn’t solve the underlying problem. What tends to happen is that they resurface, shattering whatever stability you had briefly achieved, and usually, the consequence is more severe upon their return. In his feature debut, Irish director Phil Sheerin takes this central idea and plants it at the dark heart of his bleak, deeply atmospheric domestic drama The Winter Lake.
Contained to a handful of locations, but mostly isolated to a derelict cottage and the murky turlough nearby, The Winter Lake follows volatile mother Elaine (Charlie Murphy) and her reclusive son Tom (Ansoon Boons), the two having retreated to their ancestral home in Ireland following an undisclosed traumatic incident. The guarded truth is concealed for a good chunk of the film’s runtime, but what’s clear is that this a broken family. Whatever life Elaine and Tom have escaped, they have not been able to leave it behind. It plagues them and it has embedded itself into the depressive landscape they now find themselves submerged in. It’s set somewhere in rural Ireland, but the environment is so visually and audibly desolate in its oppression that it could be the middle of nowhere at the end of the world.
Always alone, Tom is easily swallowed by the barren hills and trees that surround him. He looks perpetually lost, wide-eyed, confused, prone to explosions of anger that spill over as unpredictably as the lake he scours for skulls in his spare time; a ghoulish hobby, but not when you’re as haunted as Tom. Relative newcomer Boons gives a quietly intense performance as Tom, his jittery shyness like a pot on a continuous boil. It’s not long before he makes a chilling discovery at the lake, horrified at first, but succumbing to a perilous curiosity that has him take the object home. While a lot of Sheerin’s film shows admirable, moodily crafted restraint, the director has no qualms showing us Tom’s creepy find in all of its unsettling, rotten detail – now this stripped-to-the bone chamber piece has changed into something more associated with a horror film. If the defining image doesn’t make it obvious, the brooding score drumming in the background most certainly will.
As the lake bubbles the past to the surface, it aligns with the appearance of the only neighbours in the area, Ward (Michael McElhatton, who ‘Game of Thrones’ fans will traumatically recognise as Roose Bolton), and his confident but troubled daughter Holly (Emma Mackey, ‘Sex Education’). They are the mirror opposites of Elaine and Tom; Ward and Holly represent a mournful remnant of a splintered family frozen out to a barren landscape with seemingly no glimmer of light on the horizon. And, like Elaine and Tom, troubling secrets brew in the background like a storm. From here, events fall into place rather predictably. Elaine takes an instant liking to Ward, desperate to carve out some stability in her life in the form of much-needed support, emotionally and financially – the electricity in the cottage is prone to being switched off and she can’t even afford a phone. Like any thriller or horror protagonist, Tom shares our instincts in doubting Ward but is just as helplessly swept into Holly’s vortex as the two bond over similar circumstances.
On the surface, Tom and Holly’s blossoming friendship suggests that the film is heading into familiar coming-of-age romance territory, but in this respect Sheerin is careful enough to steer his film into murkier places. In keeping with her charming, fiery persona which helped to make ‘Sex Education’ such a hit, Mackey livens up every scene she’s in, often concealing her character’s true nature amongst the rebellious teen angst she naturally exudes. It makes for an unpredictable, thorny relationship and a tricky emotional hurdle for Tom to navigate; Holly’s past mingles messily with his own, her troubled relationship with her father fuelling the resentment seething away in the relationship between Tom and Elaine. Like the soggy marshland, the four characters all compound their individual situations, and everybody gets dragged through the rain and mud. The Winter Lake is a film that always feels cold and abandoned, the type of gritty drama that gets under your fingernails. It has the same earthy bitterness of something like Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes, where the stark environments almost act as a lightning rod for all the domestic violence. It’s as if you’re constantly waiting for bad things to happen to the characters in this film.
On the whole, Sheerin’s feature debut is a sturdily crafted piece of work; best viewed as a grim character-driven drama (the thrills are minimal), but the director isn’t as successful here as he could have been. Although Tom and Holly’s relationship drifts to a surprising conclusion, the same can’t be said for their parents. It is obvious from the outset that Elaine’s choices of men have created problems in the past, ultimately leading the pair to this run-down abandoned house that has none of the homely warmth needed to repair their painful history. It’s no surprise when she latches onto Ward, but since he does not attempt to conceal his true intentions, Elaine’s ignorance feels disappointingly by-the-numbers – you can almost feel David Turpin’s screenplay grinding against the film’s excellent sense of place and mood. By the time she has made a teary declaration to Tom’s closed bedroom door – ‘I may be a bad mother, but I’m not a bad person’ – Sheerin loses his grip on the carefully established tension, and now gives the impression that he’s checking off a series of expected revelations.
It is more disappointing, however, in how neatly the film ties up its turbulent plot threads, slightly betraying what is, up until this point, a moodily restrained drama. When viewed alongside Holly’s twisty character arc – and the refreshing change of pace this brings – you can’t help but to feel like an opportunity has been missed to push this film into heavier, more uncertain territory, as initially promised in its first act and through the treacherous lake at the centre of it all.
What we are left with is a gnarly drama that deals with trauma, boosted by good performances and a striking visual palette embodying every dark thought of the two families at its heart, but The Winter Lake is ultimately too cautious to drag you under – even when Sheerin looks like a director with the tools to cause some real damage.
Available on digital download 15th March.
Written by Kevin Woodley
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