Wednesday, January 03, 2024

Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale, on Sundance Now

Unfortunately, you can have a witch-hunt without a witch. However, Sarah Fenn really is a witch, so it is dangerously easy to target her. Supposedly, Sanctuary is a town founded on tolerance, where white magic is legal and law-abiding witches cast spells for the willing. That all changes when her daughter is accused of using witchcraft to kill a popular fellow student in creator-writer Debbie Horsfield’s 7-part Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale, based on V.V. James’ novel, which premieres tomorrow on Sundance Now.

For years, Fenn always felt comfortable in Sanctuary (sister-citied with Salem), because she believed it was a place of acceptance. She also did a lot of favors, including a big illegal one for her mortal coven-member Abigail Whithall, involving her beloved son Dan. Unfortunately, that would be the same Dan Whithall who falls to his death during a raging party.

Rather ominously, suspicion falls on his ex-girlfriend, Fenn’s daughter Harper, who was q
   uite distraught when somebody started playing a sex-tape of her and the deceased during the blowout. To make matters worse, some of Dan’s neanderthal friends reveal video of Harper making what they consider suspicious hand gestures. They claim she cast a fatal spell, even though the teen girl has been officially declared non-magical.

Outside investigator DCI Maggie Knight tries to keep an open mind, even though most of Sanctuary immediately turns against Harper. Knight even provisionally clears the teen, but suspicion then falls on her mother, especially when the persecuted teen publicly accuses Dan the Man of forcing himself on her, after plying her with drugs. That sets his mother Abigail and her wealthy doctor husband Michael on the witch-hunting warpath.

To say Horsfield lays on the witch-hunting persecution themes heavily would be an understatement. Yet, it still resonates in this era of trial by social media and cancelation. Horsfield might be aghast if someone suggested
Sanctuary was a Kyle Rittenhouse allegory, but his supporters could surely draw parallels. Regardless, it is a vivid illustration of the principles explained in Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. When a lot of people act collectively on emotion, they can do truly heinous things.

In fact, the toxic social dynamics of Sanctuary are quite believable, especially thanks to Horsfield’s drop-by-drop escalation. These teen characters are absolutely awful, but maybe that makes them true to life. Hazel Doupe’s portrayal of Harper Fenn might be the one notable exception. Viewers will feel for her despite her record of spectacularly bad decision making.

Stephanie Levi-John and Adam Isla O’Brien provide a grounded real-world perspective as DCI Knight and the Sanctuary-based DS Ryan Henshall. They both wear well on viewers over the course of the series. Amy De Brhun and Barry John Kinsella are also totally chilling as the increasingly unhinged and sociopathic Whithall parents. However, the character Sarah Fenn is weirdly passive and Elaine Cassidy’s performance is annoyingly mousy. Seriously, she should have had her bug-out bag packed early in episode two.

The magical systems in
Sanctuary have their own rules and elements that distinguish them to some degree from other fantastical franchises. There are plenty of lessons to glean from it, like always be suspicious when everyone in the media and government are saying the same thing. Sanctuary also exposes the hypocrisy of communities that trumpet their tolerance. When things get ugly, it is clear Fenn’s fellow residents always say her as a witch, rather than a friend or neighbor. You will hear some strident dialogue in Sanctuary, but there is also some trenchant social observation—perhaps inadvertently. Recommended for fans of witch-themed contemporary fantasies, Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale starts streaming tomorrow (1/4) on Sundance Now.