The Isle Movie Review
Written by Jeff Tolbert
Released by Brainstorm Media
Directed by Matthew Butler-Hart
Written by Matthew Butler-Hart and Tori Butler-Hart
2019, 96 minutes, Not Rated
Released on February 8th, 2019
Conleth Hill as Douglas Innis
Alex Hassell as Oliver Gosling
Tori Butler-Hart as Lanthe Innis
Fisayo Akinade as Cailean Ferris
Alix Wilton Regan as Korrigan MacLeod
Graham Butler as Jim Bickley
Three men, survivors from a doomed merchant ship, are rowing through the fog on a cold, gray sea, despairing of finding land. One of them, Oliver Gosling, is an officer; the other two, Cailean Ferris and Jim Bickley, are “able seamen.” Their ship ran aground on a rocky patch that wasn’t on their charts. They manage to row to an island, where they meet a local man, Fingal, who offers to help them find their way back to the mainland.
So begins The Isle, a quiet tale of supernatural tragedy at the edge of Western Europe. As you might expect, there are strange goings-on on the island. The locals are odd and clearly keeping secrets. Two local women, Lanthe and Korrigan, are especially strange. Korrigan accosts the stranded sailors and seems to mistake Bickley for someone else. A local man, Douglas, takes the sailors in and tells them of a recent tragedy: several years before, a fishing boat sank off the island, killing a number of young men. Strange voices awaken Bickley on the first night on the island, and Gosling’s sleep is troubled by dreams of drowning and of eerie voices singing.
The next day Bickley and Ferris go exploring, and they learn that the four people they’ve encountered since arriving are the only ones left living on the island. Bickley suggests that they split up, and clearly the poor guy has never seen a horror movie because this goes about as you’d predict. Ferris gets lost, and spooky things happen. Gosling, meanwhile, remains behind at Douglas’s house, snooping through the recalcitrant man’s belongings and piecing together little bits of the island’s story like a character in Resident Evil or Silent Hill. When Bickley returns to Douglas’ house alone, Lanthe seems to hear Ferris’ voice as he cries out in fear, with (again) predictable results.
Ultimately, and rather unexpectedly, The Isle is a condemnation of male sexual violence. At this particular moment in history, this is a timely message. And the film is competent where it counts: well-produced, generally well-acted and written, and full of gorgeous Scottish scenery. (I assume it was filmed on location. If not, it’s still beautiful.) There are gorgeous panoramic vistas and long shots showcasing the island in all its mute, Scottish glory. The soundtrack is wonderful, full of Celtic-sounding fiddles and moody cellos. It tells an interesting, sad story. But it suffers from slow pacing that isn’t really justified by its contents. There are long periods of darkness and quiet, which in other circumstances might contribute to the atmosphere, but here they get a bit frustrating. I had to watch it twice (or nearly twice—I got two-thirds of the way through and started over) to be sure the boredom didn’t distract so much that I missed key plot points. (It did, and I had.) This is relatively rare for me, as I love a slow burn, and I especially love things from the fringes of old Britannia. Once things are revealed, once the big mystery is finally explained, it becomes interesting again; but with only about ten minutes left in the film, this is a little too little, too late.
I did learn something new from this: I didn’t know that there was any association between Persephone, of Greek mythology, and the sirens. Apparently, there is. Kudos to the filmmakers for this bit of mythological trivia. But I always thought of Persephone as the innocent victim of abduction by Hades. Fingal, one of the villagers, associates the source of the strange happenings on the isle with Persephone (if only figuratively), which is a pretty strange connection to make. And I still don’t entirely understand the “sirens” here: why bother sailors at sea, who have nothing to do with the island’s specific tragedy? (Yes, there’s a scene toward the end that sort of reveals the roles each person really played in the whole thing, how they were sort of analogues to Persephone and the sirens, but it doesn’t really make a lot of sense.)
If you’re already in love with things Scottish, you’ll likely find some enjoyment in the gorgeous cinematography, the Scotts-Gaelic murmurings of the soundtrack, or the generally bleak, “Celtic” feel of the cold Atlantic edge of Europe. As a horror story, though, The Isle isn’t particularly horrific, or even especially interesting.
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