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The Winter Lake: Film Review

The Winter Lake is a dark and slow-burn coming-of-age drama in which a traumatic and toxic past unravels into a confrontation with identity and survival.

Though The Winter Lake is director Phil Sheerin’s (Dependent) first feature, the coming-of-age film’s aesthetics and plot are distinctly Irish. The Irish-Canadian co-production, which comes from Dublin-based Tailored Films, proves that small-scale, introverted, and dark films can result in intriguing and enchanting experiences. With a script that hints enough at an unhealthy past for the film’s characters, The Winter Lake leaves just enough unsaid to let the characters’ body language do the work, without feeling the need to explain in detail. This results in smooth transitions between the film’s main themes and an instant trust and familiar bond with the four characters portrayed in the film. Having been internationally acclaimed and awarded for the short film North, which explores the relation between a mother and a son about to be separated by the mother’s death, Sheerin expands his harrowing depictions of how tough life can be and focuses on the search and definition of identity, and how this affects survival. The Winter Lake is above all, a film about human relationships.

For reasons unknown but certainly life-changing, Tom (Anson Boon, 1917, Blackbird) and his mother Elaine (Charlie Murphy, Peaky Blinders, Happy Valley) move from the north of England to a (very) small-town village somewhere in the republic of Ireland. Though Tom is clearly very troubled, which causes his mom to slowly slip into alcoholism, it is their new neighbours that bring the real trauma in. While Elaine quickly befriends Ward (Michael McElhatton, Game of Thrones, The Fall), Tom and Ward’s daughter Holly (Emma Mackey, Sex Education) are drawn to each other through their mutual dark pasts. Tom is fascinated with the turlough close by, a lake which ebbs and recedes with the seasons and drags up to the surface what once was buried in its depth. When, one day, Tom makes a grim discovery on the lake’s borders, Holly is forced to tell him her deep dark secret. A toxic traumatic web that questions identity ensues, culminating in an unsurprising yet harrowing finale.

Though The Winter Lake’s narrative is at times a bit faint, this is more than compensated with a superb sound team who manage to lift the atmospheric calm of middle-of-the-country Ireland to an eerie and harrowing, otherworldly setting. The cinematography by Ruairí O’Brien (The Fall, Five Minutes of Heaven) creates a perfectly non-distinct backdrop where the film’s major revelations are not an unrealistic and unimaginable occurrence. The scoring of the film is nerve-wracking, and the sound effects definitely add an x-files-like quality to the film, reminiscent of Ireland’s Celtic past. A sense of the supernatural, which is natural to Irish film, permeates throughout The Winter Lake and gives just that extra touch to the eeriness and bleakness of the situation. The directing style follows the narration, the speaking character is always (slightly) out of frame or out of focus, which results in a heightened focus on the listener. It gives the impression of secrecy surrounding what is being said and an overt attention how information is perceived by the listener.

loud and clear reviews The Winter Lake
Emma Mackey as Holly and Anson Boon as Tom in The Winter Lake (Strike Media)

This directing technique also enhances the deep and meaningful backstories the four central characters have. Especially Emma Mackey excels as an Irish country life teenager who has a strong identity and an even stronger ability for survival. Even her on and off boyfriend Col (an unexpected appearance by Mark McKenna, Sing Street, Overlord) transcends the role of a character-aide and shows a great deal of character development. A downside to the rather trimmed down script is that it made me constantly on edge for a possible plot twist. Though the denouement, which comes extremely early in the film, gives away the film’s ending a bit too soon, it does not diminish the strength and emotion of the final scenes. When you realise the ending is exactly how you predicted it, it is strangely both unrelieving and thrilling, aided by a very atmospheric cinematography to set the mood.

The Winter Lake solidly grounds itself in Irish tradition. The importance of land in the film, as well as the shame put on women, are all recurring themes in Irish cinema and literature. As symbolism is embedded in the reality of the film, there is no need for dream or fantasy sequences. The choice to have not one protagonist, but to make all characters’ story in quite detailed manner, result in a very defined arch. Interestingly enough, if one of the four characters was removed, the whole film would fall apart. The once upon a time quality and apparent serenity of the film is a slight nod to fairy-tale. This setting is reflected in the fact there is no mobile phone to be seen in the film. The small town seems a bit stuck, a little bit out of time, as if modern Ireland didn’t quite catch up with it yet. The landscape is almost primal and nature, and a conscious choice was made to give the houses a 70s vibes through its colours. At its core, The Winter Lake is a small-town mystery wrapped up in the legacy of Ireland’s recent past. The kind that people don’t want to talk about – but need to.

The Winter Lake will be available on Digital Download from 15th March, 2021.

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