I come to this film from a position of tolerance; I’m an atheist and – honestly, from this angle – most religions seem pretty strange. Alongside their (sometimes dubious, but usually well-intentioned) moral codes, they all impose a few seemingly arbitrary restrictions, and it’s easy to poke fun at these. But fundamentalism – of any kind, political or religious – poses more of a problem than any moderate view, I think, and the few Jehovah’s Witnesses I know are lovely people. Indeed, one of my favourite aunts is one. I don’t harbour any ill-feeling towards this particular belief system.
It’s important to make this point, because Apostasy doesn’t make it easy to view Jehovah’s Witnesses in a positive light. This assured debut from writer/director Daniel Kokotajlo is an angry piece, railing against the inflexibility of the church’s Elders, pointing out – again and again – how their strict adherence to the rules shows a complete lack of humanity. And fair enough, it’s his story to tell: he grew up in this community; this reflects his own experience. But he clearly has an axe to grind, even if it’s not with the church’s followers.
Molly Wright plays Alex, a quiet eighteen-year old Jehovah’s Witness, keen to dedicate herself to God. She wants to prove herself worthy of a place in the ‘New System’ – even though she has a medical condition that means refusing a blood transfusion could cost her life. Her mum, Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran), supports her decision; she too believes implicitly in the tenets of her faith. But Alex’s sister, Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) is not so sure: she’s suspicious of the edicts issued by a remote governing body; she’s restless; she wants out. And when she finds herself pregnant, she’s disfellowshipped and the whole congregation – including her family – is ordered to shun her. But nothing shakes Ivanna’s faith: not one daughter’s ill health, nor the other’s banishment. How can she defy the church? She truly believes her children will be damned if they don’t do as they are told. She does what she has to do, and tries to guide them to the light.
This is a slow and sombre film, and Siobhan Finneran’s compelling performance is the heart and soul of it. She doesn’t do much; Ivanna is still, outwardly composed; her turmoil is all internal and unexpressed – and yet it’s there, clearly, conveyed in subtle tensing of muscles and clouds behind the eyes. Sacha Parkinson and Molly Wright are also very good; they are both engaging young actors, appealing and identifiable. Jameses Quinn and Foster are suitably implacable as the Elders, and it’s interesting to see trainee Steven (Robert Emms) begin to change as he’s accepted into their ranks, parroting their words.
Kokotajlo’s direction is interesting: the whole film has a dreamy quality, as if it’s slightly removed from reality. There’s a subtle shift in light and colour that renders it quite different – effectively symbolising the skewed vision of these JWs.
A fascinating insight into a little understood religion; this won’t change hearts and minds, but it will certainly make you think.