An imprisoned healer is enlisted to rid a king of his demons.
Entering the world that Misha Vertkin constructs to tell the tale of a king at the mercy of demons that only a mysterious imprisoned healer can rid him of, there is an inescapable sense of doom. Juliet Cowen’s titular healer encapsulates a fragile hopefulness and the last vestiges of a spirit yearning for its freedom. Lit almost entirely by candlelight we are immediately struck by the imagery of a lone woman, descending into darkness, surrounded by dangers that she cannot see but knows await her.
The typical use of the kind of sound design, music, cinematography and more that are at play in the opening moments of The Healer leans into the premise outlined by the mission and stark ultimatum given to the healer by the Queen (Tina Barnes) who insists that the healer banish the King’s demons or be hanged. What we get, however is a very original and intensely intimate perspective on mental health, perceptions of strength, masculinity and power dynamics in class.
Tina Barnes as the Queen adds to the ever-present sense of dread with a powerful and stern presence. As and when the story needs, she is able to pivot towards a softer almost fearful persona, using just her eyes either to let us in to her repressed anxiety (albeit briefly) or to underscore the sincerity of her threats.
Similarly, Juliet Cowen manages to project the dread and angst that the audience is meant to feel. Additionally, she is able to project a sense of empathy and care as she begins to dig into the true cause of the King’s illness. A perhaps unintended consequence is that the quieter and more tender moments that the healer brings to the story also serve to put you on edge as the severity of the consequences if she is not completely successful are made crystal clear.
This film also delves into the toxicity of traditional masculinity and the concept of strength by making the focus of the story a man whose status makes him the icon of patriarchal authority. Peter Faulkner as the King uses his imposing physical presence both to project his perceived power and to put us on edge as that power seems to be spiralling out of control. This manifestation of regal dominance, consumed by dark forces is reframed with a formidable sense of purpose and an unflinching application of compassion, providing a sobering look at the kind of damage many of us are willing to do to ourselves in order to avoid addressing the true root cause of our suffering. Brilliantly and with a deft touch, Vertkin manages to illustrate how overwhelming the issues surrounding mental health can be and how even well-meaning people can feed the problem. It also shines a light on the damage that false perceptions of strength and weakness can do.
Amazingly, Vertkin manages to touch on so many of these themes while maintaining a solid narrative through line, avoiding bogging the story down with clumsy analogies or unnecessary exposition. The story remains focused on the struggles that these two people separated by power, class and so much more, must jointly confront in order to claim the freedom that they both so desperately need.
Complimenting the wonderfully nuanced writing from both Vertkin and screenwriter Brid Arnstein, is an awe-inspiring combination of Graham Boonzaaier’s cinematography, Cora Miron’s musical score and the work of a top-class sound department. The joint efforts of this team produce an enveloping environment that in turns brings wonder to the eyes and knots to the stomach. In addition, there is incredible attention to detail from the art department including the range of costumes (impressive considering the small cast) and the construction of the hellish cave in which the healer and the King’s demons do battle.
This is a fine example of meticulously constructed art succeeding in drawing the audience into its world and in doing so forcing us to confront many of the demons that many of us try to ignore, often to our peril. It also challenges us to redefine strength and dares to suggest that perhaps those demons have something to fear from the strength that we are often taught to hide.
Studio: National Film & Television School | Year: 2019 | Genre: Period Drama | Duration: 17 Mins | Suitability: Mature
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