Directed By: Chris Newby
Starring: Natalie Morse, Gene Bervoets, Toyah Willcox
Tag line: "Ecstasy and orthodoxy in the 14th century!"
Trivia: This movie s partly based on accounts of an historical female anchorite, Christine Carpenter, who was walled into her anchorhold in a village church in Surrey, England, in 1329
Directed by Chris Newby, 1993’s Anchoress is based on the true story of Christine Carpenter, who, in 1329, became an Anchoress (a person who, for religious reasons, agreed to live the remainder of their days walled up in a cell, one usually connected to a church) for her parish in Shere, a town situated in Southeast England. More than this, though, Anchoress is a raw, striking motion picture that, both stylistically and thematically, owes quite a bit to Carl Dreyer’s 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc.
Convinced the Virgin Mary spoke to her in a dream, Christine Carpenter (Natalie Morse) ignores the wishes of her mother (Toyah Willcox) and pledges her life to the Catholic Church. Spurred on by the local priest (Christopher Eccleston), the young girl takes a vow of celibacy, and asks the bishop (François Beukelaers) to allow her to become an Anchoress. He agrees, and even though she’s barely 15 years old, Christine enters a newly-constructed cell attached to the town’s small church, where she’ll remain for the rest of her life, offering up prayers and answering the questions of those who visit her (because she’s supposedly in a state of grace, it’s believed Christine now possesses a wisdom beyond her years, and she gives advice on everything from love to how to get into heaven).
For Christine, being an Anchoress seemed like the best way to avoid the Reeve (Gene Bervoets), an overseer who employs her father (Pete Postlethwaite) and had set his sights on marrying her. Sure enough, with Christine out of the picture, the Reeve instead begins to court her younger sister Meg (Brenda Bertin), who eventually becomes his wife. But through the small window of her cell, Christine watches the world pass her by, and soon regrets the lifetime commitment she made. The priest, however, insists that she remain true to her vows, initiating a battle of wills between the two that Christine has little hope of winning.
From its realistic period costumes and set pieces to its steady stream of close-up shots, Anchoress was clearly inspired by The Passion of Joan of Arc (which also took place during the Middle Ages). What’s more, while Anchoress does feature plenty of scenes with dialogue, some of the film’s best moments play out in silence, starting with the opening sequence, in which Christine spots a pair of monks transporting a statue of the Virgin Mary through a large field (framed perfectly by cinematographer Michel Baudour, this scene is absolutely gorgeous).
Along with matching the look and feel of Dreyer’s classic, Anchoress relates a similar tale of religious oppression, with the priest manipulating both Christine (he refuses to allow her to make physical contact with anyone on the outside, and insists she spend her time embroidering blankets, which he then sells to the faithful) as well as the community at large (when Christine’s mother, who rejects the church and its teachings, butts heads with him, the priest convinces the rest of the town that she’s a witch, and should therefore be put to death). In addition to its theological issues, the movie also has something to say about the role of women in the Middle Ages (when girls far too young to know the ways of the world were married off to men twice their age).
Shot in stunning black and white, Anchoress flawlessly blends all of these elements together, resulting in a beautiful, poignant, and often thought-provoking motion picture.