Inland: Mark Rylance stars in an ambitious but unconvincing forest folk tale

Fridtjof Ryder’s atmospheric debut contains some big, unsettling ideas, but its invocation of ancient English folklore feels a little forced.

15 June 2023

By Arjun Sajip

Mark Rylance as Dunleavy in Inland (2022)
Sight and Sound

England’s green and pleasant land proves sensuous, elusive and quietly minatory in British director Fridtjof Ryder’s debut feature. The film’s title, seemingly designed to invite a number of inferences, is best read as a metaphysical marker of where the film’s heart is encaged – namely, in the land itself. It also brings to mind a director whose influence on proceedings is palpable: David Lynch, creator of Inland Empire (2006).

Lynch is not the only clear reference point. Inland is the latest addition to the rapidly expanding canon of British ‘folk’ films, and though it is perhaps too oblique and too tonally restrained to join such recent releases as The Feast (2021) and Enys Men (2022) in the horror category, what it does draw from the ancient woods of England is a kind of disquietude.

There is a plot of sorts: a doe-eyed young fellow (Rory Alexander), vaguely Christlike in appearance and listed in the credits as ‘The Man’, is discharged from a mental health clinic, and returns to his spaced-out mechanic father figure, Dunleavy (Mark Rylance), who lives near the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. Dunleavy offers him shifts at his garage, and soon Dunleavy’s friends, all of whom are married men, are inducting the quiet lad into what appears to be a high-class brothel. But the sex worker the Man is drawn to appears to be his own mother, a Romany woman who has been missing for some time, and who may have some supernatural link to the earth – a link she seems to have passed on to her son.

Ryder takes three distinct, alternating approaches to this material. The first is the familiar ‘folk’ mode, with its heavy focus on the lush, eerie natural surroundings. Here, a gravelly voiceover by Kathryn Hunter – echoing her eldritch performance as the three witches in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) – helps foster an ominous fairytale ambience. The second is a more traditional realist aesthetic: we follow the Man in everyday situations as he chats with Dunleavy, works at the garage, and rekindles old bonds. It’s the film’s third, more abstract mode that doesn’t sit quite as convincingly with the other two. The brothel’s interior evokes not only Lynch (the dream-sequence room from Twin Peaks, 1990-91, in particular) but Kubrick: swamped in a deep, impenetrable black, save for some red table lamps and four white marble statues, it seems to exist out of time and place. The non-speaking clients, slumped in their seats, recall the immobile patrons of the Korova Milkbar in the opening scene of A Clockwork Orange (1971), with the cultish carnal goings-on of Eyes Wide Shut (1999) also floating to mind.

Inland (2022)

Inland’s treatment of its folk themes feels similarly second-hand. Ryder relies too heavily on obvious signifiers to evince ancient Englishness: the pub that houses the brothel is called The Faerie Queene’s, and there are passing references to the Green Knight. Its biggest cheat code, positioned as its ace card, is Rylance himself, who plays a low-key variant of Rooster Byron, his character in Jez Butterworth’s lauded 2009 play Jerusalem. The play explores several complex ideas about England, not least the discomfiting mutual reliance between its lingering legends and its malingering layabouts. But Inland’s debt to its theatrical forebear is distractingly visible: at one point, Dunleavy mumbles, “You see, I’m ancient… vintage, heritage, I’ve got giant’s bones.” It’s pure Rooster, and Rylance leans into it heavily.

Rylance’s screen work has long been characterised by minutely detailed performances. Sometimes, as in Bridge of Spies (2015), his particular magnetism works wonders; at other times, as in Bones and All (2022) and Inland, his deliberately awkward line readings, plethora of facial twitches and trademark shambling physicality appear mannered even as he strives for hyper-realism. But there’s no doubt he looks the part here: his careworn face suggests that he aged an eon with his mysterious earth-mother lover, and that she continues to haunt him.

The film implies that the Man, too, is one with the landscape; when he stretches, it sounds like old oaks creaking, and one sequence sees him stalking naked into the forest. It’s reminiscent of certain shots in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady (2004), which also explores forest folk tales and man’s relationship to nature, but conjures its sense of mystery from sublime visual poetry and sustained atmospherics. Only 20 at the time of filming, Ryder is evidently drawn to larger-than-life themes; perhaps his next work will see him find a more original, fleshed-out setting for the unsettling ideas that compel him.

 ► Inland arrives in UK cinemas Friday 16 June. 

 

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