Films that ask a single actor to hold the screen for an entire 90 minutes represent an appealing challenge for performers. One of the best recent examples was Locke, starring Tom Hardy as a man whose entire life unraveled during a drive he took in England. Now British actress Alex Reid savors a similar exercise in The Bellwether, a fascinating if ultimately failed exercise in histrionics and social commentary.
At the beginning of the film, Reid’s Joanne wakes up in a locked church that she cannot escape. As she tries to remember what happened, she is confronted with a large screen above the altar that beams messages to her, variations on “Repent,” but with a more political subtext. The 21st century version of Big Brother urges her to swear allegiance to the state and also to renounce her decision to have an abortion.
One-woman show first intrigues, then frustrates.
The setup by writer-director Christopher Morrison is ingenious. The screen in the church not only sends her political messages but also flashes images from her past life as a political activist, along with more intimate encounters with both male and female lovers and more distant flashbacks of her cutting herself with razor blades. Some of the people from her past also send her audio messages urging her to cooperate with the authorities. The most urgent diatribe from the authorities is an anti-abortion crusade, and suddenly Joanne finds herself very pregnant, with another opportunity to give birth instead of choosing to end her pregnancy.
But that is only the beginning of the weirdness. Soon two other versions of Joanne appear in the church, each increasingly more radical and defiant. Once the movie goes into triplicate, it loses much of its clarity and effectiveness. Although Reid gives a superb performance in all the incarnations, the focus becomes more muddled, and the film grows repetitive. Morrison uses the single setting effectively, and there are suspenseful and gripping moments in the first half, but the movie needs more surprises or perhaps more intellectual complexity to keep us engaged.
It is not until the end title sequence that we learn the significance of the setting where Joanne is imprisoned. In what must be the longest end-title sequence in cinema history — even longer than the endless crawl found in a Disney animated film or an Avengers spectacle — credits for the pic are interspersed with a history lesson about the church in Brussels where the film was shot. According to this epilogue, in medieval times a woman was wrongfully convicted of a crime and executed on the spot by an aristocrat whose sexual advances she had spurned. A few centuries later, a church was built there to commemorate the injustice.
Morrison obviously chose this location to highlight his protest of crimes against women through the centuries. The sentiments are admirable, but like the rest of The Bellwether, the message-mongering is shrill and overstated. Nevertheless, the film is worth checking out for Reid’s fine performance, which leads us to want to see more of this gifted actress.
Cast: Alex Reid, Flora Plumb, Sally Clawson
Director-screenwriter: Christopher Morrison
Producers: Lien Callens, Jeff Daldorf, Juri Koll, Christopher Morrison, Pilar Stillwater, Carlon Tanner
Executive producer: Ioana Matei
Director of photography: Gabi Norland
Costume designer: Patricio Lagos
Editor: Stephanie Sibbald
Music: Joanna Karselis
Casting: Andrea Clark