by Hope Madden
From its unsettling opening moments, Ruth Paxton’s A Banquet sets a tone that never eases. Holly’s (Sienna Guillory) life is certainly never the same.
The event that kicks off the film puts a generational horror in motion that flirts with the supernatural, bringing allegorical focus to the rippling effects of trauma in a family. As a caregiver, Holly likely blames herself for what happened, which makes it harder for her to focus properly on mothering her two teenage daughters, Isabelle (Ruby Stokes) and Betsey (Jessica Alexander).
At first blush, it seems Betsey has the worst of things. Having witnessed the trauma, she’s been particularly needy of her mother’s affection. Or is she hoping to prove to her mother that, indeed, Mom’s love is the cure she’d hoped it might be? Is Betsey trying to prove that to herself?
Or is there some larger force at play, as Betsey claims when she stops eating?
Justin Bull’s screenplay braids ideas associated with this theme of trauma, from anorexia to neglect to guilt and grief and isolation. Details unfold slowly, uncovering lived-in resentments and traumas that heighten tensions.
Paxon sets these ideas loose among an exquisite cast. A brittle Guillory carries the unforgiving emotional complexity scene to scene with appropriate weariness. Alexander brings an enigmatic quality to the role, while Stokes mixes heartbreak with anger to surprising effect.
The great Lindsay Duncan, whose grandmother character haunts the first act and delivers a bracing presence throughout the second, is magnificent.
Paxon’s camera ogles food, which is a trigger in the film, both a tool for caregiving and for Betsey’s rebellion. There’s so much to like about A Banquet — which is why it’s such a frustrating film to watch.
Paxon can’t decide where to take things. She’s filled the screen with exceptional performances, each character exploring fascinating, dark emotional corners. The filmmaker flirts early with body horror, diverts quickly to something more psychological, dips deeply into family drama and never lands on a tone.
This same lack of clarity or commitment begins with Bull’s script, which builds slowly to an energetic if fizzling climax. For all it has going for it, A Banquet answers none of the questions it asks and leaves you wanting.