At the edges of an increasingly secular society, Apostasy plunges into the otherworldliness of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. All-too-familiar road signs by the Kingdom Hall and several beige tower blocks offer disturbing reminders that this is, in fact, Manchester, but little else is recognisable from the world outside of the so-called ‘Truth’. Shot in a constricting Academy ratio, the film’s aesthetic mirrors the controlling and unquestioning nature of the organisation – shielding believers from the sinful beyond, whilst blocking external influences from seeping in. But when uncontrollable events crash into the religion’s separate sphere, throwing its dangerous stipulations into sharp relief, the illusory nature of the carefully-constructed rules and structures are laid bare for those willing to see.
Writer-director Dan Kokotajlo’s debut feature masterfully delves into the complexities and suffering of a family of Witnesses. Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) and her two daughters, Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) and Alex (Molly Wright), once thrived at the centre of their congregation, but now all three face life-changing tests to their faith. As they are forced to confront their doubts, Apostasy delivers one quietly devastating blow after another. It isn’t enough that youngest daughter Alex guiltily worries about receiving a prohibited, but life-saving, blood transfusion as a baby, agonising over whether she will be accepted by Jehovah, but Ivanna forcefully derails Luisa’s education by insisting she skips college to attend meetings. For an outsider, it’s immediately apparent that modern, liberal priorities are a foreign and undesirable concept. At times, every decision feels like the wrong one.
But Kokotajlo’s approach displays great restraint and sensitivity towards the complex characters, who are more than their religion, even in their most devout moments. As seeds of discontent sprout, they cannot help but question the elders’ rationale for such punitive disciplinary action. There is only so far they can go, though, without feeling the wrath of the congregation themselves. And this is what makes Apostasy so absorbing and gut-wrenching: the women are victims of an organisation that has everything but their best interests at heart, but as the film builds layers of their conflicted emotions, it is surprisingly easy to understand why they don’t just abandon the only community they have ever known.
Apostasy pulses with an anxious energy, occasionally exploding into the rage that increasingly bubbles below the surface. These moments of revelation are well-earned, however, with a sense of inevitability. The murky mustard colour palette and slow push-ins through wavy glass doorways encapsulate not only a growing sense of dread and disillusionment, but the double-edged sword of belonging to the congregation. The warm yellows may initially feel inviting, but the entire composition hums in the minor key; an ominous threat lurking at the very heart of the distinctly old-fashioned furnishings. And this unease remains long after the credits roll. The viewer may be able to leave this alternative existence behind, but Apostasy reminds us why it should be impossible to forget those who are still trapped inside its clutches.
Apostasy is released in UK cinemas on 27th July