One of the most underrated films on our site is Anchoress, a film that made a splash debut at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. Not much has happened for the film or its first-time director, Chris Newby, who has made only a couple features and several shorts since then. In a sense, you could say the film has suffered the same fate as its protagonist, Christine Carpenter, a Medieval teenager who is sealed away in a living tomb as a blessing to her village. Perhaps the time is ripe for this film to break out.
Here are excerpts from some reviews that are bound to pique your interest:
At times “Anchoress,” an eccentric, beautifully photographed black-and-white film, offers an eerie immersion in a distant world… In his first feature, the English director Chris Newby deftly carries our century’s attitudes about spiritual freedom and feminism into an artfully constructed past in which such attitudes came from the Devil. The story is based on scant historical references to the real Anchoress of Shere. Two letters written on a church wall in the English countryside tell of Christine Carpenter, who escaped from the world only to long for it again. The film’s Christine (Natalie Morse) is like an emotional time traveler, a bridge between our attitudes and those of the 14th century… This eloquent film brims with its own daring and artistic conviction.
– Caryn James, The New York Times
Unless the person involved is very holy indeed, there is always a degree of self-aggrandizement in sainthood. Chris Newby’s “Anchoress,” a film set in the Middle Ages, plays slyly with that notion in its story of a young woman who chooses to be walled up for the rest of her life. As she sets the last stone of her tomb into place and fixes it with mortar, there is a smile of perfect happiness upon her face, and although it might be sanctity, it is also the look of a teenager who has, at last, gotten out from under the thumbs of her parents…
Much depends on the performance by Morse, as Christine; her dependable, open face reflects simplicity, faith, and also a vast naivete. Although the film is set long ago, Christine is like many modern children who will do almost anything to get away from home, and it is that simple human truth, lurking beneath the spiritual elements, that give it poignancy.
– Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times
Newby visualized the design of the film as a western, making use of the genre’s spatial dynamics (open plains, isolated homesteads) to illustrate visually the struggle between Christianity and paganism. Shot in black-and-white, the film’s beauty is magnificent. The lack of color conveys atmosphere much the way the blue-filtered forest scenes did in The Piano. There is a starkness to the images that is unsettling. Faces practically glow from the screen, and texture assumes a three-dimensional quality. In one scene, Christine kneels in a field to gather some wheat. A roughly woven straw hat covers her frizzed curls which lie against the nubby wool of her smock. The clarity of the black-and-white gives every shot depth and richness.
While some filmmakers believe that to focus on a film’s cinematography is to undercut its overall impact, this is not the case with Anchoress. The film’s look is essential to the success of the story. We are able to concentrate on the plainness of Christine’s cell, to feel the dirt under her fingernails as day after day passes and she waits for her next vision… Graphic in its depiction of women’s limited choices during the 14th century, Anchoress testifies to the power and timelessness of being able to speak in one’s own voice and words.
– Alison Macor, The Austin Chronicle
Chris Newby’s “The Anchoress” may just be the most hauntingly beautiful film that I have ever seen. Nearly every frame from this black and white masterpiece could be taken and hung in a museum. Such is the visual mastery that he and his cinematographer, Michel Baudour, possess…What follows is a lesson on the role of faith, bureaucracy, greed, and women in the church and has more to say on any of those subjects than most that would focus on a single one.
– Brian Montgomery, Anchoress.