J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Sacrifice: What Happens on the Shetland Islands . . .

Never call a Shetlander English, they are likely to take exception. However, some would be even less thrilled to be called Scotts. They consider the Faroe Islanders their closest cousins and aspire to a similarly quasi-independent status. They definitely do things differently on the Islands. American surgeon Tora Hamilton learns that the hard way in Peter A. Dowling’s Sacrifice (trailer here), which opens today in New York at the IFC Center.

After her untimely miscarriage in New York, Hamilton agrees to relocate to the Shetlands, her husband Duncan Guthrie’s ancestral home. On paper, there are plenty of advantages. He will have plenty of petroleum-related work and the local hospital will be delighted to have surgeon of her caliber. There is also a large, unflaggingly immaculate orphanage that is chocked full of infants ready to be adopted. That is indeed the plan for Hamilton and Guthrie, once they are past the one-year cross-the-t’s-and-dot-the-i’s waiting period.

Just when Hamilton starts to feel comfortable, a peat-bog preserved corpse is unearthed from their property. The police assure her the anonymous body most likely dates back centuries, but Hamilton notices physical traits similar to a young wife and mother who supposedly died of cancer a year or so ago. Everybody tries to pooh-pooh her concerns, but the body’s injuries sure look like a ritualistic killing to her. Forced to conduct her own investigation, Hamilton starts to suspect the murder was the work of a not-so ancient pagan cult operating uncomfortably close to home.

Evidently, some of the islands are covered with scattered rune fragments (rune ruins), making the Shetlands a highly suggestive setting for supernatural skullduggery. The problem is Dowling’s narrative is much more a conventional Brit mystery than a horror film, which rather figures, considering it is based on a novel by Mary Higgins Clark Award winner, Sharon Bolton. The trappings are strange and sinister, but the surprises are few and far between.

Still, it is rather worth the price of admission to see Downton Abbey’s David Robb (Dr. Richard “It’s Eclampsia You Idiot” Clarkson) in such a radically different context. He chews the scenery with great gusto as Hamilton’s shadowy father-in-law, Richard Gutherie. Likewise, Rupert Graves is slippery enough to maintain Gutherie fils’ moral-ethical ambiguity. Radha Mitchell is a bit vanilla for the lead, but her restraint serves the film well in a number of key scenes. She also develops a fast screen-rapport with Joanne Crawford’s Sgt. Dana Tulloch perhaps the only honest copper on the archipelago and certainly the only pregnant one.

Sacrifice is highly watchable, but it never really dials up the intensity you would expect from an IFC Midnight release. It feels more like a highly promising BBC America pilot than a midnight movie. With that in mind, it should definitely be on the radar of British mystery fans, who will recognize Robb from Downton and Graves as Cumberbatch’s Lestrade. Recommended on VOD for the And Then There Were None demo, Sacrifice opens round midnight tonight (4/29) at the IFC Center.

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