Director – Richard Clark, Teleplay – Stephen Volk, Based on the Novel Midwinter of the Spirit by Phil Rickman, Producer – Phil Collinson, Photography – Matt Gray, Music – Edmund Butt, Visual Effects Supervisor – Tanvir Hanif, Production Design – Melanie Allen. Production Company – ITV Studios/Group M Entertainment.
Anna Maxwell Martin (Merrily Watkins), David Threlfall (Huw Owen), Ben Bailey Smith (Lol Robinson), Sally Messham (Jane Watkins), Leila Mimmack (Rowenna Napier), Nicholas Pinnock (Bishop Mick Hunter), Siobahn Finneran (Angela Purefoy), Kate Dickie (DC Annie Howe), Simon Trinder (DSI Frank Bliss), Oengus Mac Namara (Denzil Joy), David Sterne (Canon Alan Dobbs), Ania Marson (Mrs Joy), Will Attenborough (James Lydon), Geoff McGivern (Tim Purefoy), Paul Bentall (Jeffrey Kimball)
Merrily Watkins is a widow raising a sixteen year-old daughter Jane. She has joined the Anglican clergy as a vicar in Hereford parish. She has been put forward for a program run by Huw Owen that specialises in deliverance. She is unprepared as she is asked to consult with the police on a case where a man’s body has been crucified in the woods, followed by a church desecration. She is brought in by the nurses at the local hospital to deal with the dying Denzil Joy whom they believe is evil. Before he passes, Denzil scratches Merrily’s palm and afterwards she is haunted by visions of him. At the same time, Jane conflicts with Merrily over unresolved issues with her late father. Walking out of home, Jane is drawn in by a group that practice devil worship and are intent on seducing her to join them.
Phil Rickman is a British author who specialises in what he terms supernatural fiction – Rickman actively resists occasions where he has been labelled a horror writer. Rickman first appeared on bookshelves in 1991 and has several ongoing series at present. The most popular of these are the Merrily Watkins books, which first appeared with The Wine of Angels (1998) and extends to twelve other books at the time of the airing of this mini-series, concerning an unassuming female deacon who works as a ‘deliverance consultant’ or exorcist. Midwinter of the Spirit (1999), Rickman’s eighth novel in all, was the second published of the Merrily Watkins books, although chronologically is the first in the series. This is a TV Mini-Series adaptation told in three one-hour parts. It was a ratings and critical success and would seem to presage the way for further Merrily Watkins adaptations.
Midwinter of the Spirit sets in as another exorcism show. However, it quickly makes refreshing difference to most of the exorcism films being churned out in the US. Instead of the possessed growling in deep voices, mouthing obscenities, rotating their heads, engaged in physical contortions, levitations and such theatrics, this comes grounded in theology and takes its spiritual matters seriously. The most we ever get of horror theatrics is Oengus Mac Namara scratching Anna Maxwell Martin’s hand and appearing to her thereafter as a hallucinatory figure. Indeed, it is quite possible that there are no physical manifestations throughout the mini-series – merely hallucinations and people engaged in diabolic rituals. Of course, being British, the other difference is that it dispenses with any Catholic priests holding the frontline against demonic forces that we see as the default upholders of the faith in almost every other exorcism film and substitutes Anglicanism. For one, this allows us with what might be a first for any exorcism film – a woman exorcist.
The results are entirely refreshing – it feels like an exorcism story that is set in the real world, one where the priest is having to deal with mundane matters like a home life and a problem daughter, has doubts about her calling and is dealing with unresolved issues as a widow. Not to mention that the theology seems well thought through and coherent – if maybe a little too much emphasis is placed on Anglican cant. This makes considerable contrast to the majority of Possession Films that are made within the horror genre and seem more concerned with shock effects and where in all probability the writers would be straining to be able to quote a single Bible verse off the top of their heads.
The minus side of this is that the lack of theatrics makes Midwinter of the Spirit much slower than the standard horror film. In fact, what we have feels for all the world like a British rural police drama more so than a possession and exorcism film. In becoming much more of an intellectual exorcism film and leaving all the elements of deviltry as ones that possibly only exist in the imagination, it comes up short when it comes to trying to make us jump – possibly imagining an old man clutching one’s arm just doesn’t rank up there with head-turning, crucifix masturbation and barf bag theatrics.
That said, by the second episode, the show picks up considerably and works extremely well due to the power of a strong script. Particularly good are the scenes when we suddenly start seeing that the shadowy cultists are bent on seducing Anna Maxwell Martin’s teenage daughter (Sally Messham) over to their side. The way all of the elements of the story are wound together at the climax of the third episode make for some fantastically good writing. It emerges as a surprisingly original and refreshing showing. Oh and Anna Maxwell Martin more than clearly demonstrates – as she has been in a number of other recent works – that she is one of the best of the current generation of British actresses.
Writer Stephen Volk has also written the likes of Ken Russell’s Gothic (1986), The Kiss (1988), William Friedkin’s The Guardian (1990), the BBC’s live ghost investigation special hoax Ghostwatch (1992), Superstition (2001), the psycho-thriller Octane (2003), the British tv series Afterlife (2005-6), the ghost story The Awakening (2011).
(Nominee for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress (Anna Maxwell Martin at this site’s Best of 2015 Awards).