wed 29/06/2022

A Banquet review – horror, done before | reviews, news & interviews

A Banquet review – horror, done before

A Banquet review – horror, done before

Eating-disorder horror takes a big bite of cliché

Into the woods: Jessica Alexander in 'A Banquet'Signature Entertainment

One feels, or perhaps hopes, that if she could have avoided it, first-time feature director Ruth Paxton might not have started A Banquet as she ultimately did: with Holly Hughes (Sienna Guillory) arduously scrubbing the frame of her husband’s hospital-style bed, as he coughs, gasps, and weeps for an end to whatever ghastly affliction he has been dealt. 

Not to be deterred from her usual course of existence, Holly pops across the kitchen to make herself a smoothie. Out comes the chopping board, in flies the fruit, and the blender goes whirr. Guillory’s face, angular and incisive against the dismal British sunlight, harbours an expression of concern that is typical of the film’s understated direction, and yet at once an excruciatingly obvious symptom that something is wrong. Barely ten seconds go by before, to the relief of anyone with the volume turned up, Mr. Hughes calls time on his brief cameo, reaching for the bottle of Powereach Sparkling Thick Bleach stationed conveniently at his bedside. Alas, if only there was another way to signpost a widow.

Like 28 Days Later (2002), in which vigilante activists unwittingly liberate an infected chimp to unleash a virus of rage upon humanity, Holly’s deceased husband is a sort of unconfirmed patient-zero for the misfortune that proceeds to slump down upon the leftovers of his family: Holly, her two daughters and, later, her mother (Lindsay Duncan in a small role). Other characters streak into our purview: the first daughter’s boyfriend, the second daughter’s not-quite boyfriend (the other boyfriend’s younger brother), a private dentist, a school careers counsellor. 

Beholden to her controlling mother, Betsey, the older daughter, is the film’s primary victim. After locking eyes upon a crimsoned moon at a high-school party, she wanders to the nearby woods. Next thing we know, she’s back, collapsing on the garden lawn, after which she occasionally mumbles to herself, experiences visions, and, most significantly of all, refuses to eat – while miraculously staying the same weight. It is a transgressive act in a film that, as its title implies, luxuriates in its slow and sensual display of food, intimating as it does a commentary on eating disorders. Look closely enough, A Banquet says, and an ostensibly ineffectual item of food takes on a macabre dimension. (Pictured above: Sienna Guillory)

Sadly, A Banquet joins a familiar but forgettable class of films that takes it upon itself to transform each second of its 97 minutes of runtime into a flashpoint of horror. Some of these are more palatable than others. At the party, Betsey’s boyfriend offers her a line of… is it coke? isn’t it coke? Ten-pound note to her nose, she gambles, and receives a nasty shock. Fine. But when Holly unfurls a napkin at the family dinner table, the sound effect, akin to a gust of wind rushing past the viewer’s eardrum, would be too much even for the climax of Don’t Look Up (2022). It’s only a napkin.

The performances are fine. So little is ultimately asked of A Banquet’s leading ladies, it feels futile to mark them down. Guillory is probably the best, to the extent that it is possible to watch along, nod, and agree that, “Yes, if a woman were grappling with the loss of her husband, and the ongoing distortion of her daughter, she would act something like this". That is, largely muted, preoccupied, spiking occasionally into anger.

Yet, garbed in burning red kimono though Holly is, or encased in the impassive architecture of her modern family home, the beleaguered mother trope is nevertheless old, worn-out, done before. Jessica Alexander, likewise, all-too-easily renders the character of Betsey, for all intents and purposes a blueprint Gen-Zer: hair-dyed, equipped with iPhone, tentatively coming to terms with what to do in life.

The younger daughter, Izzy (Ruby Stokes) might as well belong to another film. As Betsey is quite literally spirited away, it is Izzy who provides the film’s spirit level. Training to be an ice dancer, she is the reminder of what her sibling is not: balanced, normal. Disinterested, the wandering eye sees through her, on to memories of other female-weighted casts (such as those of Mad Max: Fury Road and Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang) for a sense of what might have been, were any of the characters given due care and attention.

To return to that blockbuster opening, it is tempting to read Mr. Hughes’ death as an admittance of guilt on Paxton’s part, a warning: "Get out while you can!" A Banquet will not quite have you reaching for the bleach, but the idea might become more appealing.

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