Apostasy: an impressive debut about the horror of being expelled from your religion

The director Daniel Kokotajlo’s greatest achievement is his sympathetic grasp of character.

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Daniel Kokotajlo was a Jehovah’s Witness from the age of eight until his early twenties, when his doubts about the religion became overwhelming. Now this 37-year-old Mancunian writer-director has made his debut with an intensely controlled and concentrated film about the exaltation of living within the religion, and the horror of being expelled from it. Apostasy (27 July) is muted: hushed, still, almost colourless. But don’t let that fool you. Its pain is all the more distressing for being muffled.

Alex (Molly Wright) is about to turn 18 but feels tainted by something that happened in the first few days of her life, when a court overruled her family and her church by sanctioning an emergency blood transfusion. (Jehovah’s Witnesses believe blood to be God’s gift; to administer it ourselves is to meddle in his work.) Alex, who is anaemic, has little heart-to-hearts with Jehovah, which Kokotajlo stages as asides within otherwise naturalistic scenes, much like Emily Watson’s self-admonishing chats with the Almighty in Breaking the Waves.

Apostasy bears the influence of Lars von Trier’s gruelling masterpiece in other areas, too. It’s there in the sensitivity towards an austere religious community easily demonised, and in an impoverished palette that doesn’t extend far beyond shades of mushroom, oatmeal and cream. The film looks as pale as Alex.

Her faith isn’t in doubt: she spends every spare moment at the local Kingdom Hall or handing out the Watchtower in her northern hometown; she even learns to preach in Urdu. She need only spot a cross around a stranger’s neck to launch into a lecture about its pagan origins. Religious fervour and adolescence have created in her a perfect storm of righteousness.

It’s her older sister, Luisa (Sacha Parkinson), who is causing consternation for their mother Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran). Bad enough that Luisa’s college course clashes with meetings. “Imagine when Jesus comes back to destroy the world at Armageddon,” Ivanna says as she dishes up dinner. “How’s he going to feel when you’re at college?” The effect is rather as if Alan Bennett had scripted a Bergman film. Yet now Luisa is pregnant by a “wordly boy”, as her mother puts it. Luisa’s refusal to bring the father to meetings results in the only possible outcome: disfellowship. The elders, brooding and hawk-like figures to a man, close ranks, and Ivanna is ordered to cease contact with Luisa. Out on a gardening job, Alex watches fearfully as a colleague hacks away at a branch, severing it from the rest of the tree.

Halfway through the film, there is a narrative rupture: a crucial event takes place off-screen, and we catch up with the action some time later. It’s a bold move by Kokotajlo and entirely in keeping with his preference for a disorienting, off-kilter mood.

He and his cinematographer Adam Scarth (who shot Daphne, another superb and surprising British film) position their actors against windows, conjuring a diffuse light that reduces them almost to silhouettes; they shove them to the bottom or into the corners of the frame, as in Jane Campion’s Sweetie and Gus Van Sant’s Milk; where the empty space weighs heavily on them. During crowd scenes a single face is picked out sharply from the blurred bustle. Interiors rely heavily on fogged or frosted glass, creating a chilling sense of the nebulous unknown. The use of sound (a boiling kettle, the brusque rapping of a door knocker) is spartan and unnerving.

The director’s greatest achievement, though, is his sympathetic grasp of character. When one of Ivanna’s work colleagues offers his unsolicited two-penn’orth on the subject of Jehovah’s Witnesses, it is her we feel protective towards, not this meddling non-believer.

The performances are exceptional – Robert Emms is curiously intimidating as an opportunistic new elder whose allegiances shift unpredictably – but the film relies for much of its impact on the careworn, ashen-faced Finneran as Ivanna. As with the picture as a whole, the turmoil in her is all going on under the surface; her skill is in conveying it so economically. “In a few hundred years, we probably won’t remember any of this,” Ivanna sighs. (That’s her idea of comfort.) But it’s a safe bet Apostasy won’t be forgotten for a good while yet.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.