BFI #LFF 2017: APOSTASY Film Review

Molly Wright in APOSTASY

Fascinating, controversial and quietly brutal, APOSTASY is remarkably assured and understated piece of filmmaking

British director Daniel Kokotajlo turns the spotlight on Jehovah’s Witnesses in his directorial debut APOSTASY, a gripping story about a family torn between their devotion to one another or to their faith.

Written and directed by Kokotajlo, himself a former Jehovah’s Witness, APOSTASY tells the story of 18 year-old Alex (Molly Wright), her elder sister Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) and their mother Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran), who live as part of a close-knit community of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Manchester. While Alex and Luisa spread the word amongst the local Pakistani community, their mother juggles missionary duties in the local town centre with an office job. But when Luisa announces that she is pregnant, the Elders of her community declare her “disfellowshipped” and Ivanna and Alex are ordered to ostracise her completely or be shunned themselves.

Fascinating, controversial and quietly brutal, APOSTASY is remarkably assured and understated piece of filmmaking. With its claustrophobic interiors and intimate close-ups, Kokotajlo employs a precise visual style to evoke the quiet, internal world of the religious believers, his personal experience giving the film an unmistakable ring of authenticity.

Kokotajlo also isn’t afraid of adopting some bold dramatic strategies in his directorial debut, including a clever commentary technique for the inner voice of Alex and a completely unexpected twist halfway through with a thumping emotional payoff.

The power of the piece is driven by three intense, controlled female performances. Wright and Parkinson deliver exceptional breakthrough performances as Molly and Luisa, the young sisters reacting differently to the same upbringing. But it is Finneran as Ivanna who eventually emerges as the film’s most tragic figure, her performance is made all the more extraordinary by its restrained nature.

The only false note is the crawling pace, with Kokotajlo’s tendency to pad out each and every sequence, ramping up both the tension and the frustration.

That said, this is a daring and devastating piece that leaves you with an underlying sadness and anger at an institution that can force such impossible choices on its believers.

4 out of 5 stars

APOSTASY screens at the BFI London Film Festival on Sunday 8 October 2017