B&W, 1993, 106m. / Directed by Chris Newby / Starring Natalie Morse, Gene Bervoets, Toyah Willcox / Vanguard (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) / DD2.0

Stark medieval dramas are usually a tough sell in the film market, and the 1993 British film Anchoress appears to be no exception. "Ecstasy and orthodoxy in the 14th Century!" proclaims the cover art for the film, though the ecstasy is entirely of a spiritual nature. Sort of a modern, post-feminist response to films like The Seventh Seal, this film may prove difficult for the average consumer but rewards patient viewers with stunning imagery and plenty of food for thought. Christine Carpenter (Natalie Morse), a devout peasant girl, becomes enraptured with a statue of the Virgin Mary and develops a strong bond with the young local priest (Christopher Eccleston). Her parents, William (Pete Postlethwaite) and Pauline (pop star and TV staple Toyah Willcox), are not as devoted to the church but allow their daughter to become an anchoress - a woman who is walled in to be at one with the Virgin and offer blessings to the outside people. The villagers congregate to a small window at Christine's self-imposed prison, where the priest controls how long and with whom she interacts. However, Christine's introspective existence causes her to move away from her religious faith and become focused on her more earthy dedication to the female goddess herself, Mother Earth. When her mother falls prey to the persecuting religious practices of the day, Christine comes to realize that perhaps she was not destined to remain an anchoress after all.

Featuring a very strong cast of art house regulars (including The Vanishing's Gene Bervoets and a virtually unrecognizable Willcox), Anchoress is first and foremost a convincing, gritty depiction of the Middle Ages, a time when religious convictions dominated every word and deed. The beautiful black and white photography perfectly captures the appearance of a delicate wood carving on film, while the surrealist eye of director Chris Newby (who directed some high profile gay shorts and features like Madagascar Skin) pays off during the delirious, haunting final twenty minutes. Fans of experimental British filmmakers like Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway will be especially receptive to this film's unique, strangely resonant tone, which seems to spring out of some odd historically-tinged dream state. Vanguard's DVD presents an accurately letterboxed transfer of the film with every bit of grain and visual grit intact. The film wasn't intended to look sleek and glossy, so the appearance here is appropriate at least. More dynamic is the Dolby Surround audio track, which bristles with life throughout the film. Ambient noises flood the surround speakers, offering a surprising amount of range that will have you often glancing over your shoulder.

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