Dir. Danishka Esterhazy, Canada
By Sarah Leventer
Black Field, a historical drama set in the 1870s, follows sisters Maggie (The Vampire Diaries’ Sara Canning) and Rose McGregor (Ferron Guerreiro) as they struggle to make a life on the Canadian prairies. Their parents died years ago, leaving Maggie as the family farm’s and her sister’s only protector, a role complicated by the arrival of the mysterious, handsome French Canadian, David. This role is even further complicated when Rose goes missing.
The McGregor women live constricted lives typical of the time period, but have the same depth and self-possession as Jane Eyre and other Gothic heroines that inspired Esterhazy when making her film. Maggie is particularly wise, flawed and untamable. The desperation verging on wildness in her eyes, coupled with her conviction and protective instincts make for powerful tension as she searches for Rose and sets off a final chain of events that alters hers and her sister’s life forever. Complimenting Canning’s captivating performance is Mathieu Bourguet as David, who matches Maggie in intelligence with the charm (and moral ambiguity) of a lost Romantic poet.
These strong performances are what give the film life, along with Paul Suderman’s striking cinematography. Especially stunning is Rembrandt-style lighting and shadows created during the Black Field’s darker scenes. When the three leads share a meal early in the film, the budding connection between David and the much younger Rose first becomes clear to Maggie and the audience. As Maggie’s awareness crystallizes, the camera moves to a close-up of her face glowing out from the darkness in the center of the room as she seems to vibrate with worried energy—the candles around her face visually separate her from Rose and David, with a hauntingly beautiful effect.
The night scenes in the McGregor home form an even more striking contrast with the stark, day-lit prairie—the film as a whole is beautifully shot, and in look as well as in tone, has a palpable Gothic influence. As is perhaps obvious, however, this is not the castle-on-a-dark-stormy-night, pulpy kind of film.
Black Field is Gothic in the classic, literary sense of the word, meaning the film tells a story about 19th century characters in a style true to that place and time. The end result of Esterhazy’s almost scholarly devotion to matching style to content is a film that actually takes the viewer somewhere: not to the could-be-next-door set often expected in independent films, or the glamorous, recognizable locales of Hollywood cinema but inside a fully-realized, earthbound fantasy.