A Banquet ‘s Holly (Sienna Guillory) is a woman on the brink. Still reeling from the suicide of her terminally ill husband, she’s grief ridden and shellshocked. She valiantly struggles with mounting money problems, putting on a brave face as the newly single parent of two teenage daughters, Isabelle (Ruby Stokes) and Betsey (Jessica Alexander). While Isabelle disappears into dance and ice skating, Betsey —who accidentally discovered her father’s body— is utterly adrift. Unsure of what she wants to do after graduating, she passes the time via her boyfriend and boozy house parties.
The quiet in the house isn’t peace as much as shock, each member of the family going through the motions without being fully present. The house is a spotless modernist dream, each meal Holly prepares magazine cover worthy and suitably nutritious. Glossy surfaces tend to crack, and it’s obvious that there are all sorts of unresolved traumas lying beneath the family’s polished veneer.
The break comes in the form of a late night revelation. Betsey comes home from a party complaining of odd skin sensations and constant fatigue. She can’t even smell food without violently dry heaving, much less eat it. What is assumed to be a hangover begins to look more like an eating disorder, yet the teen doesn’t lose any weight after weeks of starvation. Betsey is withdrawing from friends as well as food, speaking of whispering voices and bizarre visions of the end of the world.
Ruth Paxton shows great promise in her feature directing debut, both as a visual stylist and a director of actors. The bulk of A Banquet takes place in the family home, and under the gaze of her camera, what would be a swoon worthy home seems more like a well art directed tomb, a show home without a soul. There’s also a clever marriage of image and Ed Trousseau’s sound design as Betsey’s revulsion towards eating escalates. Holly prepares meals that a food stylist would envy, but the sound effects grow disconcerting loud and abrasive in regard to the mechanics of the family eating them. It’s incredibly off putting, capable of making most dedicated of gourmands misophonic.
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As the weeks wear on, and the doctors run out of ideas as to what is ailing Betsey, the family’s orbit grows ever more perilously off balance. Everything centers on the ill teen, Isabelle set adrift amongst the increasing codependent relationship of her mother and older sister. Given that empathy, threats, punishment and medical science have all failed to fix things, Holly grows increasingly resigned to the more metaphysical possibilities Betsey’s condition raises. The cluster of traumatic claustrophobia is further complicated by the arrival of Holly’s estranged mother, June (Lindsay Duncan).
A Banquet isn’t a dialogue heavy film, which leads the main cast to do most of the heavy lifting via subtle nuances of expression, and for Jessica Alexander’s Betsey, a physically exhausting performance of a woman possessed. All four leads excel at communicating far more than is explicitly explained with impressively curated detail. Resentment and resignation and the increasingly tangled web of the ties that bind these characters are obvious in every quivering lip and slump of the shoulders. Sienna Guillory’s Holly and Lindsey Duncan’s June are the standouts of a talented team, packing an entire lifetime of adversarial confrontations and old scars in a scarce few terse conversations.
Despite Ruth Paxton’s engaging efforts, the film’s potential is undermined by the thinly sketched nature of Justin Bull’s script. The family dynamics are the only structure in sight, but all of the more interesting contours of the narrative are left adrift in a messy final third. Is this arthouse, metaphorical body horror? Bad blood in the most literal sense? A Banquet would have been smart to lean in to a talented cast and go deeper into the psychological horror of a family in freefall. Instead, it hits the same stumbling block as a lot of recent slow simmer horror entries, burning runtime on superficial genre gloss that never quite pays off.
There’s no narrative weight to Betsey’s claims of visions of blood moons and the coming end of the world, nor is there tension in the question of her apocalyptic visions being genuine supernatural phenomena or a manifestation of a mental illness. Given that Betsey (and eventually Holly) treat these ideas as truth, the end result for the characters is the same either way. The pair have already bound themselves to a private world set to self destruct, so the specific knot they use to do so becomes essentially irrelevant.
For all of the film’s obvious strengths, A Banquet never really recovers from the hollowness of the story. The creeping dread of the early runtime is wasted by a film that seems to have an identity crisis in regard to what exactly it wants to say, a collection of evocative ideas that never really develop into something deeper. A Banquet hints at a meaty examination of the horrors of family, loss, and feminine expectations, but there’s shockingly little flesh on those otherwise lovely bones.
WICKED RATING: 6/10
Director(s): Ruth Paxton
Writer(s): Justin Bull
Stars: Sienna Guillory, Jessica Alexander, Ruby Stokes
Release date: February 18, 2022
Run Time: 97 minutes