** Editor’s Note: The title of this article has been changed after learning of the death of Cassandra Louise Baker, the production designer for “The Wanting Mare.” We offer our condolences to her friends and family.
“The Wanting Mare” could have been a classic. The feature film debut of Nicholas Ashe Bateman, who worked on the visual effects for “Save Yourselves!”, “Topside” and A24’s upcoming “The Green Knight,” has some incredible imagery and a unique approach to the fantasy genre.
It treats fantasy like the films “Children of Men” and “High Life” treated science fiction, replacing glamour with grit and making the otherworldly human with a large helping of despair. The glittering landscapes that other genre films would have fawned over are kept in the background, usually out of focus — they’re practically the only fantastical element on screen, too. There are no elves, wizards, goblins or talking animals. There are just people and a practically-forgotten dream of magic.
This could have worked. More than that — this could’ve been revolutionary. The film links the demise of magic with climate change through the setting: a permanently sweltering land called Whithren, which exports its horses on a factory ship to a frozen place named Levithen.
Characters constantly pine for the time “before,” when magic was real. That’s all they do, though. Pine, stare at one another, wander the sets and look off into the distance. The world-building is fascinating, but the story, or lack thereof, gives the viewer no reason to feel attached to any of it.
“The Wanting Mare” centers around a woman named Moira, played by Jordan Monaghan (“FBI”). She has a magical dream every night, the same dream her mother, grandmother and generations of maternal ancestors have had for decades. Moira seeks a rare ticket to get on the horse boat, so she can escape Whithren. She meets a mysterious man named Lawrence (played by Bateman) who may be able to help her.
Sounds interesting, right? The film has a meticulous — some might say obsessive — devotion to its bare-bones, somber mood. This gives the first act a sense of bracing realism. Without swords or sorcery, Moira and Lawrence have room to build a relationship that feels true — straight out of a Noah Baumbach film. There’s also a gunfight that wouldn’t be out of place in “No Country for Old Men.” With this scaled-back approach, fantasy feels human, almost subversively so. There’s no Tolkien-esque over-exposition either. One has to decipher setting and character from dialogue, adding a layer of mystery.
Yet, the second-act time jump slashes this thread of intrigue to tatters. The viewer is left scrambling to figure out how much time has passed, who’s who (the cast changes) and what, if anything, has changed in Whithren through the years. When the movie finally makes this clear, many will have already checked out. The deluge of mystery ultimately drowns any chance for personal engagement. It’s hard to care when one knows next to nothing about the people on screen, who also aren’t given much depth or conflict beyond vague goals.
Characters drift from one conversation to another, and the few climactic moments don’t land because the time jump severed the film’s lifelines. There’s no thematic variation: just a static, one-note sense of desolation. There’s beautiful imagery, sure, but without an emotional core, the film is as cold as the Arctic expanse Moira so desperately wants to travel to.
The moments of visual transcendence and genuine innovation amount to little more than a confusing dreamscape that, like most, will slip through one’s fingers the second it ends.
Daily Arts Writer Andrew Warrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.