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Lapwing review – 16th-century drama of bristling brutality

Philip Stevens’ unsettling debut, set on the Lincolnshire coast, tells of a forbidden romance between a mute woman and a Romani man

A title card gives us the historical context: it's 1554 and Queen Mary has just passed the Egyptians Act, making it “illegal for Gypsies and Travellers to remain in England.” They must leave within a month or face execution. Hooked on this stipulation, Philip Stevens’ 16th-century drama Lapwing finds one woman fighting against the restraints that cage her existence. Right from the off, the film’s bleakness shows little chance of meaningful reparation for its protagonist.

Playwright-turned-screenwriter Laura Turner imbues the forbidden Romeo and Juliet romance between nonverbal Patience (Hannah Douglas) and traveller Rumi (Sebastian De Souza) with a tempered intensity. While Rumi and his family are in perpetual purgatory for a month on the Lincolnshire coastline as they wait for a boat to save them, Patience can only pray for such a defined means of escape. She is subject to her overbearing brother-in-law, David (Emmett Scanlan), whose vicious abuse is unrelenting.

Much of the film is set to the perpetual rise and fall of the sun on the horizon of this never-ending English marshland, the stunning skyline and its luring colours making Patience and Rumi into stark silhouettes amongst the long grass. But these are fleeting, short-lived pauses: when the light has diminished, the campfire’s golden glow illuminates the contrasting bruises on Patience’s face. The hopelessly heartbreaking reality of Patience’s life is subjected to incessant verbal, emotional, and then horrendous physical abuse from David.

Reminiscent of Jennifer Kent’s gothic The Nightingale, Lapwing is also haunted by the berating aggression and merciless violence of men attacking women, which soon comes to feel unending. Sequences of rape are torturously framed as the camera holds its closeness to Patient’s face, her disassociated gaze turning numb as she is repeatedly assaulted. The abrasive negotiation of this brutal moment is both provocative and the film’s most devastating pinnacle.

Still, Lapwing is made powerful by Douglas and Scanlan’s fine performances, both of which are unwavering in the face of such cinematic intensity. The former is especially noticeable with a role that is absent of dialogue. Instead, minute facial expressions and wide eyes tell her story of mistreatment.

Embedded in this barren landscape, Patience watches the men around her progress in the tight-knit community as she awaits a chance to escape to begin her own journey. Scored to a subtly soft piano melody in its lighter moments and with deliberately uncomfortable close-ups in its pronounced sequences of horror, Lapwing may not be overly original, but it is a work of decisively provoking menace.

Lapwing is released in cinemas and digital platforms on 26 November.

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