Children in peril and dysfunctional families were a running thread throughout Film4 FrightFest this year, and like another heavyweight of the festival, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, John McNaughton’s The Harvest involved monstrous motherly love, self-reliant children and dark secrets in the basement. After a 13-year absence from big screens, the director of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer proves here that he remains a master at plumbing the depths of twisted human behaviour.
A fairy tale of sorts (McNaughton said in the Q&A afterwards that the film’s structure was loosely based on ‘Hansel and Gretel’), The Harvest centres on a doctor, Katherine (Samantha Morton), overprotective mother to a sick child (Charlie Tahan), for whom she obsessively cares with her husband and former nurse Richard (Michael Shannon) in a country house. But when Maryann (Natasha Calis), a recently orphaned girl, moves into the area and befriends the wheelchair-bound Andy, she dangerously upsets the fragile balance of the family and forces its secrets out.
Samantha Morton is extraordinary as the woman turned ogress by hurt, alternately tender and terrifying, while Michael Shannon is remarkably nuanced as the weak husband complicit in his wife’s terrible decisions. Together they form a horribly believable couple bound by tragedy and guilt, capable of anything to protect their family, with only Maryann standing up to them.
The story assuredly simmers until the pace quickens and the tale turns increasingly disturbing. McNaughton skilfully toys with the audience, leading us in one direction before making a sharp turn into entirely unexpected territory, revealing a truth far darker and a love more perverted than could have been imagined.
Set among beautiful autumnal woods, the film, like its title, gives a deceptive appearance of bucolic melancholy, only belatedly revealing its full horror. A slow-burn that stubbornly follows its own path, it is an impressively mature and weighty return to cinema for John McNaughton.
Watch the trailer: