When you’re a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail, and when you’re a hard done by religious extremist looking for someone to blame for your problems, everyone starts to look like a witch. The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw, the latest film from Canadian director Thomas Robert Lee, is about witches, but like any good supernatural story, it’s also about paranoia, guilt, rage, and loss of faith. From beginning to end it brings to life a devout religious community who believe themselves to be abandoned by God, and can see no other reason for their misfortunes than active malevolent forces.
The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw takes place in 1973, although it feels as though it could easily be set one hundred years earlier, so completely are the townsfolk cut off from modern society. In one scene an airplane flies overhead, and it’s as out of place as a spaceship would be flying over Boston today. The community has been facing a blighted land for nearly twenty years, burdened with famine, pestilence, and disease. A few bad seasons can be accounted for, but when the years rage on with no end in sight, bad luck or coincidence start to feel like a curse. No one in the village was spared, except one: Agatha Earnshaw (Catherine Walker), whose farmstead on the outskirts of town remained unscathed. There, she raised a daughter, and kept her hidden from the rest of the town.
The story of The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw is unapologetically slight, and there are a few moments where it seems to sacrifice a cohesive, tightly constructed narrative in favor of cultivating a sense of atmosphere. The third act fails to deliver on the rest of the film’s potential — the tension builds and builds but never reaches a fever pitch. It’s a slow burn that never quite comes to boil. But if The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw is less interested in telling a complex story than just creating a general vibe of unease, that’s not the worst thing in the world, because both the visual and narrative tone of the film is where it really excels. This rural religious community is a cesspool of mistrust and despair, each family struggling against the burdens of constant hardship. If witches there be, they’re a symptom of what’s wrong with the village right down to its bones, rather than the cause.
Audrey Earnshaw (Jessica Reynolds) evokes an image of Snow White from the very beginning, with raven hair, luminous, pale skin, and a simple white dress. She projects a sense of purity and innocence from having been raised apart from the world. But appearances, it would seem, can be deceiving. She’s delicate yet somehow dangerous, like a fragile flower that carries poison inside. What begins seemingly as a desire to protect her mother from the viciousness of the townspeople takes on a much disturbing edge, as we gradually see glimpses of the darkness within.
In fact, The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw has shades of a dark fairy tale throughout. A daughter raised in secret by an overbearing, ostracized mother, a mysterious curse that plagues an otherwise peaceful community; even Audrey’s rescue by the handsome, grieving farmer Colm (Jared Abrahamson) almost feels as though it’s playing with the concept of Snow White and the Huntsman. But the role of protector becomes blurred. He saves Audrey when he finds her hurt on his property; she seeks revenge against his family seemingly out of a protective instinct towards her mother, who has been abused and abandoned by the community that fears and holds in suspicion her good fortune.
The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw finds a bizarrely satisfying bridge between a traditional coming-of-age story about a sheltered young woman struggling to interact with a larger world, and an atmospheric piece of folk horror. The result is a tense, unsettling, yet compulsively watchable film, one that is significantly less interested in producing jump scares than it is in methodically building a sense of dread and discomfort as Audrey is at least unleashed on the world.