Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Midwinter of the Spirit: Anglican Exorcism

Hereford Cathedral is a great Anglican institution, but of course it was once Catholic. The new administration maintained their reverence for Saint Thomas de Cantilupe, the former bishop and defender of the faith entombed therein. Frankly, Anglicans and Roman Catholics agreed on a lot of things back then, except the whole business of Henry VIII’s divorce. Since the Reformation, they have also split on the question women in the clergy. However, Vicar Merrily Watkins may come to regret her Church’s progressive policy when she is called to combat demonic powers in Midwinter of the Spirit: Series One (trailer here), which releases today on DVD from Acorn Media.

Reeling from a personal tragedy, Watkins has accepted a posting in Hereford hoping the change of scenery will be healthy for her daughter, Jane. She is still grieving the loss of her father in a traffic accident. The Vicar’s feelings are even more complicated, because her husband did not die alone. His mistress was also in the car.

Much to her surprise, Watkins has been designated Hereford’s new “deliverance minister,” which is a coded term for exorcist. She is openly skeptical during Rev. Huw Owen’s training sessions, but she will quickly learn better. The first clue something seriously evil is afoot would be the ritualistic crucifixion discovered in the woods. Things really get bad when she visits the death bed of a notorious pedophile and rumored Satanist, Denzil Joy, whose foul spirit somehow worms its way into her head before his body expires. He will torment her with dreams and visions, while his mortal minions lure her vulnerable daughter into their clutches. Fortunately, no demon would want anything to do with irascible old Owen, who will help Watkins battle the earthly conspiracy.

Although there are definitely some supernatural goings on in Midwinter, it is rather ambiguous just how demonic matters will really get, which makes it quite intriguing to watch unfold. Of course, there is the possibility things could get really, really bad, raising the stakes considerably. However, Owen often makes the sage point that evil is a very profound human reality, demonstrated by suicide bombers and the like.

Anna Maxwell Martin sure works a lot, but it is clearly because she is so reliable. For an educated everywoman character under stress, she is tough to beat. As Watkins, she makes every crisis of faith seem as believable as her challenges of motherhood. However, David Threlfall really puts his stamp on the series as the wise but prickly Owen. If your church needed an exorcism, you would want him to do it. On the villainous side of the ledger, Siobhan Finneran (O’Brien in Downton Abbey) chews the scenery with suitably sinister delight as Angela Purefoy, the local leader of the infernal conspirators.

There are some competently rendered special effects in Midwinter, but it is really more about mood and tapping into our ancient collective fears of the demonic. On some level, we are all still Catholics and Stephen Volk’s adaptation of Phil Rickman’s novel targets those inherited anxieties quite skillfully. Tightly but sensitively helmed by Richard Clark, Midwinter takes Christian faith and the Church seriously, treating them with respect, even while putting the latter in metaphysical danger. This really is horror in the William Peter Blatty tradition. Highly recommended, Midwinter of the Spirit: Season One is now available on DVD and streams on Acorn TV.