Netflix has really stepped up their game this year with an influx of horror films and TV shows all perfect to watch over the Halloween period. Apostle was released on October 12th, and this movie has a little bit of everything; it is a period drama starring a Wicker Man-esque cult, a mythological goddess, and it has some seriously gory moments that will really make you wince. This is my exploration into the mythos of the film and the messages director Gareth Evans may have been trying to get across (in a rather brutal manner). This article discusses major plot points from the film, so spoilers ahead.
It was Dan Stevens that lured me to watching Apostle—I am a big fan of Legion and Stevens’ depiction of David Haller. What I had no clue about before hitting play was that this film was shot just 20 mins down the road from me in Margam Park, Neath, Wales. Anyone who has ever been to this green and pleasant land will know that the Welsh are a very proud nation and anything of note that is made here is hyped up to the max. So, it came as quite a surprise that I knew nothing about it. I guess that makes me a poor Welsh representative (I think I maybe avoid the local news because, well…it’s generally pretty dire) and clearly I need to up my film game!
Apostle is written, produced and directed by Gareth Evans, who hails from Hirwaun in the Cynon Valley. He is perhaps best known for bringing the Indonesian martial art pencak silat into world cinema through his films Merantau, The Raid, and The Raid 2. I haven’t seen any of those films (I am a bad, bad Welsh representative!), so I cannot really compare, but I don’t think there’s any pencak silat in Apostle. No, this film’s heart is unequivocally in Wales, blessed with a bleak beauty, a rich Celtic mythology, and the age-old story of the struggle with power between the sovereign, the clergy and the people—there are many political and environmental undertones at play here.
The film is set in 1905, during the brief reign of King Edward VII. It is never mentioned precisely where in the world the story is set, though the various British accents and mentions of The King give it away. Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens) is a former Christian who lost his faith after God did not hear his prayers and save him from unimaginable pain while preaching his message in Peking. Thomas—now a physically scarred, spiritually broken, and unhinged opiate addict—returns home to his vacant father upon hearing the news that his beloved sister, Jennifer (Elen Rhys), has been kidnapped and is being held to ransom by a cult who live on the mysterious (and fictional) island of Erisden. I can say fairly assuredly that this is meant to be Wales, which is never explicitly stated, but the appearance of a number of sheep may be an indication of that. If there’s one thing I can say for the Welsh, they are very good at making fun of themselves. For anyone that isn’t aware, sheep outnumber people here by 3-1, and the English have always poked fun at the lonely countryside dwellers who, having so few local women to court, allegedly have ‘relations’ with the sheep instead. With nothing to lose even by the start of the story, Thomas takes himself off to the island to bring his sister back.
Despite his addiction—which turns him into a Withnail crossed with Jack Sparrow-style slurring mess—Thomas still has a clear eye to what is happening around him, being quick to notice his ticket to the island is marked. Here on in, we find out that Thomas is as cunning as he is sleuthing, and he doesn’t really care whose life is put at risk when it comes to saving his sister. Dan Stevens is adept at playing this tortured soul role now. While this film is totally the opposite of Legion in pretty much every sense, the anguish Stevens portrays is similar to his David Haller persona, as his facial expressions are exquisitely energetic and he dances through the range of every human emotion in this film. And, as always, he is a joy to watch.
The folk of Erisden don’t even attempt to cover up that they are a cult. As soon as Thomas arrives on the island, he discovers a self-proclaimed goddess-worshipping utopia led by Prophet Malcolm (Port Talbot’s own Michael Sheen). Malcolm and his two buddies, Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones) and Frank (Paul Higgins), were runaway vagrants, shipwrecked on the island and said to have been saved by ‘Her’. While the island was considered uninhabitable due to the toxic soil, crops had grown and Malcolm set up a community—his own flock of people. When the crops started dying and the animals stopped breeding, Malcolm—who believed that the goddess spoke through him—began demanding blood from the villagers to feed the goddess.
The first half of the film is a game of cat and mouse—thrilling and intense. Malcolm, Quinn and Frank are aware that someone on the island is there to rescue Jennifer, and they just need to fish him out. They try to do this by displaying her in public, poking and prodding her for Thomas to see, but he resists temptation and bides his time. Thomas takes a young man into his trust named Jeremy (Bill Milner), Frank’s son, who is in love with Quinn’s daughter, Ffion (Kristine Froseth). He keeps their love affair secret in exchange for help in keeping his attempts to save his sister from under the Prophet’s nose. Thomas also finds a potential suitor in the form of the very beautiful Andrea Howe (Lucy Boynton), daughter of Malcolm. Getting involved with the only daughter of the Founding Father was never going to be a good idea really, was it? Poor Jeremy and Ffion will pay the ultimate price for their love later on.
Following the three men into the island’s densely wooded centre, Thomas discovers a barn overrun with greenery, guarded by ‘The Grinder’. This man-creature could quite easily have been plucked from Silent Hill—its head bound in a basket of sorts (most likely a nod to the other brilliant British film about a village cult, The Wicker Man) which looks rather like one of those balls made out of rubber bands that exist only in school classrooms. Despite that, it is genuinely scary. The Grinder guards a withered old crone half-covered in tree growth and bound in the barn. That she has supernatural powers is clear—as she guzzles blood, new tendrils sprout instantly from the tree—but she is as much the cult’s prisoner as Thomas’ sister. She and she alone controls the ultimate fate of the island’s inhabitants—the crops are failing and all animal births are twisted monstrosities, meaning the Islanders will soon starve if nothing is done. There is a reason for Malcolm’s mistreatment of the goddess then, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Malcolm only wants to provide for his people, but he has made some very bad decisions and his actions are becoming increasingly desperate and brutal.
So, who is ‘She’? She is not named in the story, though the villagers read from the Book of Therese at the village sermons. Of uncertain etymology, the name Theresa is generally believed to be derived from the Greek word Therizein (to reap, to gather in) and so takes the definition of ‘harvester’. This makes perfect sense—the village is praying for a good harvest and she can sprout luscious crops purely by drinking just a few drops of their sacrificial blood. But Therese is not her name.
Of course, Gods being appeased by the sacrifice of animals and humans is nothing new. Christianity’s entire existence is predicated on a son-sacrifice. While later religions did it to win favour with the gods, earlier beliefs tied it more directly to the land itself. Animism, the belief that objects living and otherwise contained their own spirit, was common across Europe before Christian times, and even after many folk-festivals and customs were based on Pagan traditions. Trees, rivers, even the land itself had a spirit and were worshipped. There are a number of potential Celtic fertility goddesses She may represent—Epona, Brigid, Rhiannon, to name but a few—but it is Dôn whose story seems most familiar.
Dôn was a Welsh mother goddess, the counterpart of the Irish Danu. She is the power of family and trust, and the powers of fertility that nourish the soil as well as the water of the earth. Dôn and her children represent all that is light and battle darkness and evil. She owns all aspects of the triple goddess—maiden, mother, and crone. When portrayed as a beautiful and mature woman, she was associated with nature while also representing the contrasting yet cyclic aspects of prosperity, wisdom, death, and regeneration. While in the guise of a hideous old crone, it is said she had a habit of eating young children, but this was most likely invented by incoming Christians to blacken her name.
Whatever we call her, in essence, the goddess represents Mother Nature, and Man has her captured and is forcing her to produce. I can’t help but think that the message we are being given is a stark warning about the damage we are doing to our planet. Genetically modified crops, cloning of sheep, over-farming/mass-producing, fracking—the list goes on and on. In many ways, Prophet Malcolm represents farmers, those who are reluctantly turning to desperate measures to provide despite their efforts being almost untenable. In the news just today, I heard that dairy farmers are selling milk at less than what they produce it for. Once again, the story represents cycles of religious and political perversion throughout history—a fact the human race can’t seem to escape.
The goddess we see is far from beautiful, and the form she takes is that of the crone. It seems that she is coming to the end of her years, and that’s okay, as it is all part of the natural order of things. She is angry, understandably, at her captors for keeping her alive and she is punishing them (or this is all part of the plan). The more they force-feed her, the less she gives. Everything is becoming toxic as growth is not organic.
While she may be held prisoner physically, the goddess is able to project herself around the town. It appears only Malcolm and now Thomas can see her (something which perturbs Malcolm, as he believes he is the sole chosen one). Why does she allow herself to be seen by Thomas? Well, it is likely that she can sense he is one of the few good people on the island. The others are all miscreants, only really on the island to evade capture or to live off the land scot-free, without having to pay taxes to the Crown. But there may be more to that—she recognises something in Thomas. He is there to save his sister, he is brave, pure, good, and maybe he can set her free too.
While the sight of the goddess is creepy as hell (I wasn’t scared watching this film at all other than in the early moments of her reveal), it is clear that she is not who should be feared on the island. When Quinn discovers his daughter’s pregnancy, he goes to extreme measures to punish both his daughter and the boy who loved her. Quinn’s ‘purification ritual’ on Jeremy is grotesque, disturbing, and will stick with you for a long time. The murder of Frank’s son will start a chain reaction of violence which never really lets up for the entire second hour. Every character who dies, dies hard—you will see bones break, limbs mangled and disembowelment in very realistic detail. Full marks to the special effects team! Gore doesn’t usually bother me at all, but I must admit towards the end, I was ready for it to stop—much like our hero Thomas who really had been through the mill (excuse the pun).
What to make of the end? Thomas makes it to the barn and finally meets the goddess in person. She tells him, “I have been waiting for you my son” and presses her fingers into his temples, providing him with a vision of what happened to her. She asks him to free her, and he grants her wish by setting her on fire. This is exactly what she wanted, what she had planned all along. If she is Dôn/The Triple Goddess then the following paragraph from this article makes the end of the film clearer to me.
For each aspect of the Goddess, there is a corresponding aspect of the man or the god who is her son (Mother), lover/consort (Nymph/Bride), victim (Crone/Layer-out), as well as poet (Maiden-Muse). As Mother, the Goddess gives birth to the god of the year. As Bride, the goddess takes the god as her lover, and in her womb he sows the seeds of his own rebirth. As Layer-out, the goddess inspires the god’s twin-rival to slay him, his death becoming a sacrifice to the goddess, a sacrifice which fertilizes the earth and makes possible his subsequent rebirth.
As the whole island becomes engulfed with flames, the remaining villagers flee to the boats. Thomas does complete the task he was there to achieve by saving his sister, who leaves the island along with Andrea, leaving only Thomas and Malcolm remaining.
As Thomas lays bleeding to death in the grass on top of the mountain, my mind harks back to the words carved into the hearth above his father’s fireplace in the first scenes of the film, “The power of his resurrection lies in the touch of his sufferings” and so it is for Thomas, who is ultimately reborn in the film’s final moments as the island’s new guardian. Roots and leaves twist into his body, his eyes turn white like the goddess before him, and he stares up at the sky—possibly looking up at the constellation Cassiopeia, the name of which translates to Dôn in Welsh. And so on it goes, the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
A solemn, yet happy ending then for a film so brutal. But maybe that is exactly the point. It feels as if we are going through the most turbulent times in history right now, but the Earth has seen this all before and will no doubt see it again. It doesn’t make things any better, of course, and we can only hope and pray that Mother Earth always finds the way and that we learn to take better care of her.
All in all, I enjoyed this film, and especially the surprise ‘welcome in the hillside’ from Michael Sheen. Sheen really steals the show for me. Despite being the cult leader, there is goodness and desperation in his eyes, as they glisten when he talks hopefully of better times ahead. He truly is one of the greatest actors of our generation. It was also a joy to hear him using his true Port Talbot accent. Admittedly, the script falls flat in places, but this film is not dialogue-heavy, and it doesn’t need to be—it is too cagey and too fast-paced for that. It is a visual feast for the eyes, a punch to the gut, and a stab in the heart.
Apostle is out to watch on Netflix now.