No Running Away With Shepherd

Sometimes when life becomes impossibly bleak, going elsewhere for a while is the best way to create a fresh start. Tending an Italian farm worked for young Evan in Spring, but when Eric answered the newspaper advert for a shepherd in remote Scotland, it didn’t turn out to be quite so idyllic. The island refuses to let him have any peace, insisting that he must confront what he is running away from. The scenario is as simple as that, with a small cast and only a handful of locations. Like Alone with You, any complexity Russell Owen’s new film has to offer comes in its rich characters, dark themes, and visual style.

Eric (Tom Hughes) is not one of those rich characters. He is an immature boy in the body of a grown man unable to find any comfort from his mother since his wife died and unable to pull himself out of his doldrums. So he runs away to the middle of nowhere, a wild island off the coast of Scotland. I’m sure he tells himself it’s to clear his head, but my bet is the solitude gives him the perfect prison in which to wallow in his unhappiness: he does not have any sympathy from me. Hughes plays this miserable role with ease, and it’s interesting to see him move from comfort in the state of isolation to the gradual realisation that the island is not a hospitable place, after all. Be patient with Eric though. Towards the end of Shepherd, some glimpses of emotional depth do show themselves, somewhat tantalisingly.

Fortunately, Hughes doesn’t have to carry Shepherd by himself. There are two secondary characters who, still downright miserable, lift the dramatis personae into a more interesting plane. Firstly, there is Eric’s mother Glenys (Greta Scacchi). She is full of the earth and air of the countryside and full of bitterness towards Eric’s late wife and his moving away after they met. Scacchi is barely recognisable, but remarkably believable: she could have been modeled after my own grandmother, traditional to the core, as though no other way is thinkable, let alone Christian. Then there is Fisher (Kate Dickie), who transports Eric from the mainland, and I’m no surer than Eric whether this is her profession or her name. She is presented as someone not as elderly as Glenys (or at least probably not) but as someone who has resided near or on this island for as long as the rocks on the shore. Fisher is utterly wise and fascinating, and the first clue that the island is not quite right comes from her.

Kate Dickie as Fisher in Shepherd

The sense of place in Shepherd is strong, but the specific place (if it is one) is not spelled out at all; rather, this is the sense of ethereal remoteness. From the boat that takes Eric there to the fog and confusing landscape, this island smacks of someplace that belongs in some other plane of existence, quite different to the sheep hills of Lamb. This place comes with a lighthouse that doesn’t light up (and yes, at first, Eric’s arrival and settling into the job reminded me of The Lighthouse but with a brighter hat and only a dog for company) and the occasional appearance of a deathly figure. The location is as miserable as the central character, but thankfully a little more varied. His home on the island is a run-down cottage with steep stairs to an upper floor and a line around it that Eric doesn’t notice but that Fisher doesn’t cross.

I was going to write about the mood of the film at this point, but I think you’ll have already got my point: it’s miserable. Of course, there’s a bit more to it than that. Eric lives under a big black cloud for a reason, and as I indicated earlier, it’s something he simply has to face. There are many films that tackle grief and despair (more than average in the last couple of years, from what I’ve observed), and a good deal of them look at ways to accept these feelings or move on from them, with a little sense of hope. Sure, Eric looks for some redemption (when he finally realises he must), but there is nothing in Shepherd that tells its audience it will do him any good.

Tom Hughes as Eric, watching the rain from his kitchen window in Shepherd

Something I really did like about Shepherd was Richard Stoddard’s cinematography, which took a different approach inside the cottage and outside on the hills. It was as though Eric was only indoors because, at times, he needed to be. The interior came with hesitant, sometimes twisted views, most notably of the staircase. Outside, the shots were wide and leisurely, as though Eric had the chance to find himself out there, whereas he was confined inside the cottage. The cinematography reflects the progression of instability in Russell Owen’s writing of Eric’s character, and considering the film was nearly two hours long, it rarely showed us the same view twice.

Eric has plenty of nightmarish images and unsettling memories to work through in Shepherd, along with the two characters I’ve mentioned to prod at his conscience. It’s ripe with interesting moments that make you wonder if they are there for metaphor’s sake or simply added colour. Watching Eric’s Macbeth-style descent is gripping at times if a little morbid. I wish I could have enjoyed Shepherd as much as I feel the film deserved, but there is one major reason why I couldn’t: the music. Written by Callum Donaldson, the score is very effective, a gothic blend of strings and moaning, but there’s just too much of it. It was relentless, heavy, and overpowering, to the extent that I considered watching the film again with the sound turned down in order to write about it, and I am sure if I’d watched on a big screen, I would have become nauseous. I have no doubt the music reflects Eric’s experiences and pulls the audience into them, but I would rather be able to leave a film thinking about what it told me rather than shutting my ears to what it yelled at me.

Shepherd will be released in UK and Ireland cinemas from 26 November. I’d recommend it to lovers of serious horror films who are in sound mental health and less sensitive to sound than myself.

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Written by Alix Turner

Alix discovered both David Lynch and Hardware in 1990, and has been seeking out weird and nasty films ever since (though their tastes have become broader and more cosmopolitan). A few years ago, Alix discovered a fondness for genre festivals and a knack for writing about films, and now cannot seem to stop. They especially appreciate wit and representation on screen, and introducing old favourites to their teenage daughter.

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