he roots of an ancient tree, felled centuries ago, twist and turn their way into the lives of a married couple with devastating results in Starve Acre, which enjoys a world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival.
A morbid fascination with the occult and ancient magic has marked UK horror from 1973’s The Wicker Man to 2021’s The Green Knight. Starve Acre is the latest to dig into the UK’s pagan history, this time through the lens of the couple, Richard and Juliette (Matt Smith and Morfydd Clark), parents to schoolboy Owen, who live on the remote Starve Acre family farm in the Yorkshire dales in the 1970s. The pair’s relationship is tested when they start experiencing disturbing and inexplicable phenomena, at first through their son and then through the fauna around them.
Owen is a troubled boy. He speaks of hearing voices at night and when he stabs a horse in the eye at a town fair, he’s removed from school. Archaeologist Richard, played by Smith with long hair and a broad Yorkshire accent, blames a neighbour and bans the man from the estate.
But things only get stranger, and when Owen dies from an apparent asthma attack his parents are sent into a murderous spiral of obsession and grief.
The film, adapted from Andrew Michael Hurley’s novel of the same name, owes a significant debt to the Nicholas Roeg classic Don’t Look Now, also a supernatural horror that centres on a couple struggling to get past the death of their child – even if the setting, is a long way from Venice. Still, 1970s Yorkshire is perfectly captured by director Daniel Kokotajlo, right down to the tea-coloured cars and horrendous wallpaper choices (the accents hold up too).
After Owen’s death, Juliette is floored to the point of bedridden with grief, while Richard throws himself into exploring the folklore surrounding Starve Acre, his childhood home, both in his dad’s disturbing writings, and in the land itself, where lurks the remains of an ancient oak tree. Felled in the 17th century, it had attracted Owen’s attention before his death. Meanwhile the devastated Juliette drags herself out of bed to spend time with the mysterious Mrs Forde (Melanie Kilburn), who promises to help her dispel her son’s spirit.
Clark, best known for playing Galadriel in Amazon’s Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, has the most demanded of her, and also has to handle the more extreme elements of the story. She handles the task admirably, making something as innocuous as painting a room with her sister, Harrie (Erin Richards), feel loaded with portent.
Towards the end, Starve Acre may teeter on the edge of absurd but as an exercise in atmosphere and unsettling mood, Kokotajlo has created something close to a triumph, aided masterfully by an otherworldly score by British musician Matthew Herbert. A few more scares could have turned what is a good movie into a great one, but there’s more than enough here to disturb and horrify .
98 mins, rating TBC
Starve Acre screens on Thursday October 12 at 6.10pm and Sunday October 15 at 3pm as part of the BFI London Film Festival