We have been waiting for The Silent Storm to make its landfall in the US since its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival about two years ago. Now that it is finally out for streaming on Amazon and iTunes and on DVD on Netflix, I am happy to report I have seen the movie twice and LOVED it.
The Silent Storm is slow. It is heavy. It is intense. And, lucky me, that is exactly how I like my movies. So the movie, with powerful performances by two seasoned actors (Damian Lewis and Andrea Riseborough) and a brilliant new comer (Ross Anderson) coupled with the stunning island scenery and psalms sung a capella speaks to me just right. And here is my take on the movie, without any major spoilers, studying Damian’s character more than anything else.
It is late 1940s or early 1950s. Balor McNeil (Lewis) is a stern Presbyterian minister living on an unnamed Scottish island with his spirited wife, Aislin (Riseborough).
The movie opens with a devastating blow to the couple. Balor is sitting in front of a fireplace, praying, with their wedding picture in hand, as Aislin is giving birth in the bedroom. We then see a little grave under a tree in their yard and complete silence in the house. The McNeils were probably not the epitome of marital bliss earlier but now they are obviously avoiding each other. They do not talk. They do not smile. They sleep in separate bedrooms. Trying to cope in their own ways.
This severe shock is not the only thing causing distress for Balor. The main source of employment on the island is mining, and now that the mine is getting shut down, the population is leaving to work at the factories on mainland. Balor is at the brink of losing everything he has found meaning in: His church. His congregation. His life.
Corinna McFarlane, who wrote and directed the movie, seems to have her point of departure in the oppressiveness of the Protestant Church on the islands early to mid 20th century She shares with Radio Times: “I went to some islands in the Outer Hebrides where the women I spoke to weren’t allowed to go to their husband’s or father’s funerals because the minister decided it wasn’t appropriate. So the women would have to watch from nearby hills – and this is only going back 55 years.”
Early in the movie, Mrs. McKinnon, a depressed woman from his congregation, visits Balor. Her husband has changed since they got the news about the mine closing. He is constantly drinking and talking about the old days. He is turning violent and and scaring off their sons.
The minister has a rigidly puritanical outlook on life: “To expect happiness in this life is a form of arrogance.” A woman’s duty is to support her husband who gives her children and brings home bread. Besides, Mr. McKinnon has the “God-given right to instill fear and obedience in his sons.”
And this is exactly what Balor expects from Aislin. She must support him. She must fear him. She must obey him. And when she does not, Balor calls her “useless” and “ungrateful.” “You will rot in the belly of hell” he roars. If only he stopped there. He turns violent with Aislin.
We don’t find out much about the couple’s backstory other than Balor being in the war — his uniform still hanging in the study — and that he saved Aislin, who was washed, almost drown, to the shores of the island, four years ago. Her accent gives it away that she is not from around here. The island community first believes her to be a “saint” but as they find out she is not who they think she is they call her a “witch.” Aislin rightly notes: “It’s either one or the other for a woman.”
Corinna McFarlane points out it is her deliberate choice that Aislin is a woman with no past: “The reason I’ve given her no back story, had her come from nothing so to speak, is because woman are always judged: Are you married? Do you have children? People feel they need to put women in a context where as men don’t suffer that as much.”
Balor finds God in obedience, structure and respect while Aislin finds God in the nature. There cannot be a worse match in marriage while there cannot be a better match in casting. Damian Lewis and Andrea Riseborough are powerful together. But you cannot help ask WHY this spirited, independent-minded woman has stayed with this man. It is not romantic love. But she has feelings for him. It is subtle but it is there. Is it gratitude? Familiarity? Is it some kind of Stockholm syndrome where strong emotional ties develop in a relationship where one side periodically beats, abuses, or intimidates the other? Or is it compassion for this self-repressed man who is, after all, a victim of his own rigidity?
Balor is restless. He can’t sit still. He does what he knows the best: He prays. We see him, in the middle of preparing his final sermon, kneeling down in his study and pray (Psalm 69):
“Save me O God for the waters are coming into my soul
I sink in deep mire
Where there is no standing
I am come into to deep waters
And the floods overflow me.”
Balor is drowning.
He does not know whom to turn but God. And when he cannot find solace in prayer, he turns to alcohol. Aislin’s observation about the island life that “men are miserable alcoholics and the cruel women are their slaves” is probably not very far away from the truth.
In the middle of this big mess, Balor and Aislin find an unexpected guest on their doorstep: Fionn (Ross Anderson) is a young “offender” brought to them as part of a project Balor signed up earlier with Glasgow Rehabilitation Mission. As Aislin shows Fionn his room, Mr. Smith gives Balor “the full picture of the lad.” We do not hear much other than some man who Fionn apparently beat “black and blue” for his “pocket watch” insisted he would have a chance of rehabilitation through the church, and that he is yet another “lustful” and “devious” city child.
Balor putting his new found slave to work (“The greater the sinner, the harder the work”) and confiscating his poetry books (“This scum fuels your dirty, city mind into acting out its devious desires”) is a manifestation of his fear and anxiety towards “the other” (mainland and city people) and “the unknown” (modern life) and we see it peak in his final sermon. The minister believes Mr. Dalgleish — the guy who is shutting down the mines and employing the island population at mainland factories — and his mainland folk will do everything to pull their family apart. He references Matthew 7:6: “His filthy swine will gather ‘round you. Cast your pearls carefully.” Do not give what is holy to those who will not appreciate it.
As his world is shattering all around him, Balor prays and drinks, he prays and drinks a bit more, and finally hears God speak to him and give him a task of a lifetime: Balor will now dismantle his entire church and take the parts to the mainland on a boat.
One may find Balor taking this trip on his own and leaving the two young people together on the island unconvincing. I would argue Balor genuinely believes it when he says to Fionn “this is the greatest test the God has set for me” and to Aislin, who suggests he take Fionn with him, “why would I want a lad when the task calls for a man? One man.” It is HIS test. And his absolute belief in the test reveals itself in the utmost care and dedication with which he dismantles the church. I do not know if it has been deliberately done but Balor carrying church parts on the beach brings to mind nothing but Jesus carrying the cross.
Balor’s absence gives two young, abused and neglected souls a chance to bond over some Yeats.
The Cloths of Heaven
Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light;
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
W. B. Yeats
These should be the most beautiful words Aislin hears in years. Andrea Riseborough kills it with her understated elegant performance here. It is her eyes talking more than her lips.
Dear Aislin, believe it or not, I had the privilege of hearing this very poem recited LIVE by an actor who looks a bit like your husband! 😀 Well, as the great Charlie Crews says “everything is connected.” Everything, in our universe, finds his way, ultimately, to Damian. And Damian read The Cloths of Heaven at Cheltenham Literature Festival in October 2014, in fact, just two days before The Silent Storm world premiere in London. Balor would probably have had a heart attack should he have seen that huge room packed with people hearing love poetry in complete silence and absolute admiration 😀
The Silent Storm makes a poetic play with the scenery that the foggy and stormy weather leaves with Balor and the sunny skies appear for Aislin and Fionn. She lets her hair down. He gets flirty. They reveal secrets. And, the Isle of Mull, with its sublime beauty, shines like a star than just a stunning backdrop in the movie.
Corinna McFarlane agrees: “The landscape is intrinsic to the story because it’s about the isolation of the characters and the idea of God in nature versus the puritanical, fundamentalist version of God as rules and structure.”
Gloomy skies come back with Balor’s not-so-happy return. His eyes are crazier than ever and time is ripe for the ever brewing storm within this very man to make its landfall.
The Silent Storm is worth seeing, if not for anything else, for another living proof that there is no end to Damian Lewis’ versatility. You understand right away why Damian was the production’s top choice for Balor. The movie needs a silent but intense performance that would make the viewer feel Balor’s inner storm: Damian’s turf! He delivers seamlessly this old school, self-repressed, suffering man who seems to be losing his sanity under a lot of pressure. It is not a matter of if that he will explode but when. You cannot bring yourself to like him but you understand where he is coming from and feel his pain.
There is a scene towards the end of the movie where Damian is absolutely at the top of his acting powers. Balor does something wrong, VERY wrong, and you can absolutely feel he deeply hates himself just after doing it. And you do not even see his face. It is just the way he moves and you know.
Damian blows you away.
Hollywood News describes The Silent Storm as “the kind of beautiful, intoxicating film that gets under your skin and makes you glad to be on the planet, full of character, charm and intrigue.” And I hope you let the movie get under your skin and let us know what you think!