Film Review: A Congregation of Ghosts

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Last Rites

(A Congregation of Ghosts, Mark Collicott, UK, 2009, 93 mins)

Laurence Olivier once referred to him as the man with a name that sounds like a fart in a bathtub. To many, he was better known as a celibate British policeman, burned alive by Scottish cultists. To a generation of television viewers, he was a shadowy vigilante stalking the streets of New York. Edward Woodward, or Edwub Wub Wub to Sir Olivier, died last November after a long battle with illness.

Woodward, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, enjoyed a varied stage career before coming to wider attention in the 1967 British spy drama Callan, where he played the titular assassin. The series became well-known for its dark themes and focus on character – the latter largely a hangover from Callan’s miniscule budget. While the production values lent the piece an aesthetic style more Coronation Street than 24, the quality of acting on display led to Callan being commissioned for five seasons and spawning a film adaptation. Woodward brought a complexity to the character a world away from the tongue-in-cheek quips of another, more famous, secret agent, with Callan effectively being the prototype for a role that would define his small-screen career almost two decades later.

In 1973, Woodward ensured his cinematic legacy when he starred as the virginal Sergeant Howie in The Wicker Man. Although the film was only a minor box-office success, it endured, rather fittingly, in cult circles, garnering a fervent fanbase and considerable academic interest. If anything, The Wicker Man’s popularity has only increased in the time since its release.  Indeed, in 2003, the University of Glasgow’s Crichton Campus in Dumfries hosted a three-day conference on the film, while the piece was remade in a woeful 2006 adaptation starring Nicolas Cage in Woodward’s role, overshadowed and outperformed by both his predecessor and a badly-digitised swarm of bees.

Following a notable turn in the Australian Boer War drama Breaker Morant, Woodward returned to the shadowy world of espionage in 1985 as former spy Robert McCall in The Equalizer – a role that was to grant him widespread recognition. Although an American series, the piece was a near-analogue of Callan, from its haunted lead to its penchant for deep explorations of character between bouts of gritty violence. The Equalizer was highly regarded and brought Woodward five Emmy nominations, as well as a Golden Globe award for best actor in a television series.

From the recounting of the highlights of his career above, it seems Edward Woodward will be best remembered as a man who played both killers and Christians; victims and vigilantes. With Callan and McCall standing against the solitary Howie in this reductionist division, it is fitting that Woodward’s final role enables these groupings to be… equalized.

As the Reverend Frederick Densham in director Mark Collicott’s feature debut A Congregation of Ghosts, Woodward takes on a role steeped in Cornish folklore and history. The real Densham, a radical churchman heavily influenced by the works of Gandhi, came to the village of Warleggan in 1931, where his revisionist leanings quickly alienated him from the clannish, conservative locals. He daubed the church’s interior with bright murals, banned concerts and whist drives, and advocated vegetarianism in a village of farmers. Densham quickly became a preacher without a flock as his parishioners deserted him. Although he continued to preach, his sermons each Sunday reached nothing but the bare rock of the church’s 13th century walls. Here, the truth becomes clouded, as Densham either succumbed to madness, filling his church with cardboard parishioners and making a barbed-wire-bordered fortress of his rectory, or lived out his days as a painfully lonely, uncompromisingly devout old man.

Wisely, Collicott chooses the middle ground, unable to resist the undoubtedly arresting images Densham’s ‘madness’ allows him to present but never rendering the piece unsympathetic to his plight. Woodward rises to the challenge such a conflicting role presents, endowing a character who could have easily become a scripture-spouting, pantomime madman with a tangible believability and sadness. It is Densham’s relationship with his handyman, George (Murray McArthur), which best displays Woodward’s considerable ability. In one heartbreaking scene, the Reverend, broken by years of solitude and the death of both his dogs and his hero, Gandhi, laments how little he has done in life in a poetic and affecting monologue as George, tentatively, almost fearfully, places his hand upon Densham’s.

Less of a sound choice is the decision to parallel Densham’s doomed career with a 1950s-set tale channelling the Cornish myths of the Reverend haunting the village that shunned him. Featuring Nicholas Gleaves and Susannah Doyle as a middle-aged couple who have purchased the rectory, these sections attempt to repurpose the piece as a ghost story but succeed only in jarring both in tone and acting quality with Congregation’s core. In place of the nuanced characterisation shown by Woodward, Gleaves –cast as an alcoholic writer slowly losing his sanity – seems to have mistaken inaction for subtlety. While his clichéd character is lifted wholesale from The Shining, his performance seems to have been lifted from an acting coach with a botox addiction.  The suspicion is that his unmoving visage is supposed to conceal a depth of barely veiled turmoil; the reality is that his performance is so one-dimensional it is hard not to wonder if it conceals a swathe of circuitry.

Despite its relatively meagre budget, cinematographer Ray Coates has ensured Congregation is an exceptionally beautiful film. From the opening shot of Densham’s sable shoes ambling dreamily through a vibrant field of lavender, to a long tracking shot of Greaves’ car as it passes over the vast nothingness of Bodmin Moor, the piece is never less than expertly shot.

It is testament to Woodward’s ability and the strength of the core of Collicott’s tale that the piece would be greatly improved by the removal of the ghost story entirely. Frederick Densham, and Woodward’s portrayal of him, are intriguing enough without the needless, gimmicky colouring of the supernatural. A fitting endnote to a varied and memorable career, A Congregation of Ghosts largely negates its shortcomings by way of the strength of Woodward’s performance. Perhaps one of the most underrated actors of his generation, he will be sorely missed.

One Response

  1. Steve Nunn says:

    What an excellent review, thank you. Came across this by accident after having found the film’s website. I would like to see the film but can’t find it on DVD anywhere…