The director Paul Hyett, who has a lengthy résumé in special makeup effects, appears to have a particular affinity for eyeballs. In “The Convent,” so many of these are gouged, popped or singed that it’s easy to lose count — especially in a movie whose murky plot and even murkier lighting puts a considerable strain on our own.
Yet this nasty-nunnery tale (originally titled “Heretiks”) has more problems than bleeding peepers. Set in 17th-century England, it centers on Persephone (Hannah Arterton), an accused witch who’s rescued from the bonfire by the forbidding Reverend Mother of a secluded priory. There, Persephone joins a fearful group of virtually enslaved young women beset by a creeping sickness and strange visions. A malevolent entity (whose history is sketched in a brief prologue) is spotted scrabbling on the walls and generally skulking about, though any attempt to investigate is met by the back of the Reverend Mother’s hand.
Juggling themes of atonement, exploitation and religious skepticism — one character remarks that the nuns won’t last long because of “a greater infection than their faith” — Hyett proves more successful with atmosphere than plot. Conjuring a dank, grimy-gray palette that’s coldly oppressive, he and his cinematographer, Neil Oseman, fail to elucidate a bewildering jumble of real-world evils (hunger, physical abuse) and otherworldly threats (premonitions, demonic possession) that never come close to cohering.
Despite the generous and often nonsensical dollops of gore, “The Convent,” by directly referencing the Church’s past mistreatment of desperate young women, can seem closer in spirit to “The Magdalene Sisters” (2002) than to outright horror. Though that film had more than enough horrors of its own.
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Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 21 minutes.
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