The Other Lamb is the latest film from Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska, whose two most recent offerings, Body and Mug, both dealt with characters feeling a kind of corporeal displacement. In the case of The Other Lamb, Szumowska and female screenwriter C.S. McMullen (the C stands for Catherine) tackle this idea again but through the greater context of patriarchal control within the confines of an all-female cult presided over by a charismatic and sexually deviant man.
English up-and-comer Raffey Cassidy gets top billing as Selah, a shy but bright young woman born into a cult where women are raised first as Daughters and, when they’ve (barely) come of age, Wives. Although the small community is relegated to shabby shacks in the forest, Szumowska establishes that it’s actually modern day via a Barbie doll (gussied up like one of the Wives, naturally). Aside from one jarring, almost otherworldly intrusion by the local police, however, the outside world is kept entirely at bay. For the most part, theirs seems like a quiet, peaceful life, all things considered.
At the head of the group is Michiel Huisman’s Shepherd (his real name is revealed in one of the movie’s tensest moments), who presides over his flock mostly with serenity but occasionally by forcing his fingers into the mouths of the older women and gagging them. The Daughters, at least those who are old enough to understand such things, desperately want to be Wives and to get closer to Shepherd. He teases and taunts them during his prosaic sermons while they gaze adoringly up at him. Sheep, both real and porcelain, are scattered everywhere to emphasize the power dynamic.
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As with most films of this nature, the terrific Martha Marcy May Marlene being the most obvious recent example, The Other Lamb hinges on Selah’s crisis of faith, or rather the awakening of her independent spirit as she enters womanhood. The opening of Selah’s eyes coincides neatly with her first period, which begins on a mountaintop (surely the most inconvenient place it could ever happen to anyone) and renders her unclean once the others discover her secret, alongside a burgeoning friendship with the closest thing the cult has to an outcast. As the group is forced to relocate and embark upon an arduous cross-country journey, Selah starts to question everything she knows, while being plagued by increasingly violent visions of what might happen if she continues down this path.
Shot in Ireland, Belgium and the U.S., Szumowska’s regular cinematographer Michal Englert utilizes the luscious green landscapes to maximum effect, particularly while the group is trekking through the wilderness in search of a new base camp, to highlight how isolated they are from the rest of the world. The interiors are cosy but bare, while the exteriors feel overwhelmingly huge in comparison. It’s understandable why these women would choose to stay in what feels like a relatively homely, safe environment (one woman confesses to Selah that she’s too scared to leave because she’s been there for so long) rather than venturing out into an unknown world.
Szumowska plays with color throughout, particularly in the differentiation between Shepherd’s plain grey jumper and the vivid pinks, blues and purples (depending on rank) of his flock’s smocks. The women all keep their hair away from their faces in tight braids, wrapped around their heads so they appear more holy and pure, almost saintly. There’s lots of talk about purity and ownership here, while the woman who’s been rendered unworthy has her hair roughly chopped off and is declared a “broken thing” by their leader. The Other Lamb’s message is slightly ham-fisted at times, but Shepherd’s proselytizing is designed to be either comforting or cautionary depending on the recipient. At one point, Szumowska shoots him from below during a sermon, showcasing how beholden to his words these women are, particularly the younger set.
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Huisman, a handsome man in his own right, has an ethereal edge in The Other Lamb. He’s played a sexy bad boy before, of course, particularly in TV series Nashville where his penchant for scarves immediately marked him out as untrustworthy. Huisman can also do tortured paramour in his sleep, most recently in The Guernesy Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, where he charmed Lily James’s character by being very rude to her. Shepherd is a completely different role for the Dutch actor, however. He’s an abusive, controlling, violent man, often casually so, but Shepherd keeps all of that darkness hidden beneath a frighteningly calm surface. Even when he lashes out, the women question what they’ve witnessed.
Huisman is styled quite like Jared Leto (who might have started his own real-life cult now, because why just look like Jesus when you can act like him too) with flowing locks sometimes lazily tied up into a stylish man-bun, and a beatific look on his face at all times, even while doling out punishments. Crucially, Huisman looks much older than his younger congregation, adding to the creepy vibe of him being the only dude in the village (even Martha Marcy May Marlene had some men who were indoctrinated). It’s worth noting too that just one woman of color is included, suggesting racial undertones coupled with the blatant misogyny at play.
Most egregiously, Cassidy could easily be Huisman’s daughter and, in storyline at least, she probably is, making Shepherd’s fascination with her particularly inappropriate. It’s clever casting, because the actor has the smouldering intensity to believably lead a group of otherwise smart women to their doom while also presenting as a creepy old man during intimate scenes with a teenager (Cassidy was born in 2002). The wool delicately threaded through the trees in the cult’s homestead suggests Shepherd sees his flock as flies caught in his web, while the prevalence and discussion of “dead things,” both in reality and Selah’s violent fantasies, signal that there’s only one way this can end. The evocative, string-heavy score, by Rafaël Leloup and Pawel Mykietyn, solidifies that viewers are meant to feel empathy rather than judgment for these women, though.
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The Other Lamb is a slow, meditative and thoughtful film that ebbs and flows with Selah’s gradual realisation of the danger she’s in. Cassidy’s performance, entirely different to her standout supporting roles in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, where she played another easily led teenager, and Vox Lux, where she pulled double duty as a young Natalie Portman and, later, her character’s grown up daughter, is confident and utterly self-assured. Doubt is written all over her face, but Selah is too headstrong to admit what’s going on in her head, enthusiastically tearing down anybody who dares question Shepherd’s methods. The female gaze is strong here, lovingly capturing Cassidy’s delicate, open features particularly when they begin twisting into something resembling anger – a shot of her staring through a fire delightfully recalls Portrait of a Lady on Fire, however unintentionally.
This is a story about the patriarchy’s stranglehold, about terrible but often insidious abuses of power and, often, The Other Lamb is heavy-handed in its approach to such prickly subjects. But it’s so gorgeously captured, and so well performed, especially in the wildly different approaches by Cassidy and Huisman, that it’s easy to forgive its shortcomings. The final moments stray into full-bore horror territory, but it’s Cassidy’s opaque expression that sticks in the brain.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.