In 2011, writer-director Lucky McKee’s The Woman was unleashed unto the Fantasia Film Festival audience. It made for a memorable evening at the Auditorium des diplômés, which back then was known as the Hall Theatre. For one, the movie itself is utterly insane, telling the story of a bizarrely calibrated family that keeps a feral woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) in a shed near their house, feeding but also abusing her for their own selfish, asinine purposes. On paper, it sounds absolutely terrible, and yet the film is strangely engrossing for the audacity of its concept, as well as its unapologetic depiction of ‘civilized’ people behaving more like animals than the supposed animalistic titular character. Second, the audience reaction was brilliantly split, with opinions swinging very, very far in certain directions.
Eight long years later and out of the blue comes a sequel of sorts. Pollyanna McIntosh returns, this time serving triple duty as actress (playing ‘The Woman’ again), writer, and director. Darlin’ transpires an undisclosed number of years later, although this time ‘The Woman’ is accompanied by a teenage-looking female partner (Lauryn Canny), who she leaves at a hospital one evening before vanishing back into the woods. The teenager is very much cut from the same cloth as her elder; filthy, fire in her eyes, and defensive, she is quickly taken down by a doctor with a sneak tranquilizer injection. Her stay at the hospital is short-lived, if poignant. First, she befriends a nurse (Cooper Andrews) who somehow takes a liking to her, and she to him. Second, given the institution’s catholic inclinations, the teenager (nicknamed ‘Darling’) is quickly transferred to a local care center for young girls run by a bishop (Bryan Batt) and sister Jennifer (Nora-Jane Noonan), a former junkie. The bishop hopes to document Darling’s transformation from beast to child of God, and help earn the project additional funding. Let’s see how that goes.
For the better part of a decade, there has been a string of motion pictures serving as sequels to films released many years prior. Live Free or Die Hard, Shaft, Trainspotting 2, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Scream 4, Toy Story 3 and 4, but to name a few that represent just the tip of the iceberg. Sometimes the attempt to bring characters and their world back strikes gold, other times much less so. In certain instances, the elapsed time leaves a void too large for a sequel to ever possibly fill, however, dedicated a filmmaker or studio may be. Then there are the examples for which the new movie, although advertising itself as transpiring in the same universe, never gels with what came before — story-wise or tonally. Such is the curious case of Pollyanna McIntosh’s Darlin’.
No one will criticise the writer-director for lacking ambition; to begin, The Woman isn’t an easy film to make a sequel for. Furthermore, McIntosh’s take on the material has a lot on its mind, and only so much time to develop those themes. Darlin’ certainly covers a larger canvass than its predecessor, both in terms of plot and number of characters, with the most significant distinction being the film’s protagonist. ‘The Woman’ fills supporting role duties this time around, lurking in the background, killing pretty much any male human whose path she comes across. In her defense, it is difficult to blame her given the maltreatment suffered at the hands of men in the previous chapter. While some may decry that the most fascinating individual up until now is relegated to the back burner, the character of Darling proves to be the ace up McIntosh’s sleeve. Her youth makes her more impressionable and malleable, and the end product is a character that can actually change — unlike the poor ‘Woman,’ whose unfortunate life experiences have taught her to constantly be on her guard. Darling, on the other hand, experiences growth through her interaction with the other teenagers at the center, sister Jennifer, and, last but not least, the bishop.
The very notion of putting a character of this nature in a place such as a catholic re-education center is bonkers, perfectly ripe for misunderstandings between the parties with occasionally comedic effect. While almost non-existent in the early 21st century, religious teachings were how colonial powers preserved their dominion for hundreds of years over nations inhabited by cultures oblivious to Christian-European manners, the vestiges of which are still noticeable today. Capping off a bold, amusingly perplexing set-up is the performance of young actress Lauryn Canny. Impressively dedicated, her range is frankly jaw-dropping considering where her character’s personality is at the start of the film versus at the end.
While there are other solid performances (Nora-Jane Noonan and Bryan Batt come to mind), in addition to some clever storytelling devices, ultimately Darlin’ is a mess of a film, serving as a classic case of a filmmaker wanting to do so much that the end product comes across as discombobulated, and shockingly so at times. There is no question that when a film throws everything it has in its bag of tricks against the wall, some things will indeed stick. And make no mistake — some elements do in fact cling to the proverbial wall, and they are memorable. On the flip side, far too much feels tonally dissonant with the rest of the picture. Not many storytellers can pull off horror-comedy mixing with aplomb. Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead has become the go-to example of such genre bending, but suffice to say that not every horror-comedy is Shaun of the Dead. Not only do some Darlin’ scenes and plot beats feel too much at a distance from the rest of the movie, but they also feel disconnected with The Woman.
Perhaps the most disappointing element is the unsubtle commentary that makes its presence loudly known in the latter stages. Film is regularly used as a platform for commentary, be it social, economic, political, or otherwise, but criticising a film’s political leanings for the mere fact that they do not adhere to one’s own is simple-minded and non-constructive (for the record, the review’s author probably agrees more than disagrees with a lot of what the film vouches for). The true point of contention should be how the commentary is communicated via the story. After demonstrating a unique vision in the early goings, promising to take the movie and the audience on a refreshing ride, Darlin’ treads a disappointingly facile route to score easy points with a certain section of the public in today’s heightened, particularly tense political climate. The film doesn’t strive for anything higher, or open minds and eyes to a different point of view, or even a different slant on a familiar point of view.
There was a lot of potential with Darlin’. Making the pill more bitter still is that it starts really strong, only to lose focus and inventiveness in the second half. In a nutshell, McIntosh’s debut endeavour is a tale of two films. There are nevertheless positives to be taken away, yet large portions of the run time frustratingly overshadow them. Some viewers may be forgiven making like Darling at one point and sprinting for the exit.