A Banquet, 2022.
Directed by Ruth Paxton.
Starring Sienna Guillory, Jessica Alexander, Ruby Stokes, Lindsay Duncan, Kaine Zajaz, Richard Keep, Rina Mahoney, and Deka Walmsley.
Widowed mother Holly is radically tested when her teenage daughter Betsey experiences a profound enlightenment and insists that her body is no longer her own, but in service to a higher power. Bound to her newfound faith, Betsey refuses to eat but loses no weight. In an agonizing dilemma, torn between love and fear, Holly is forced to confront the boundaries of her own beliefs.
A Banquet opens with a harrowing prologue depicting terminal illness and suicide. It’s an eerie, gutting sequence that involves Holly (Sienna Guillory) preparing a special meal for her husband only to walk away towards a blender and come back, finding that he has voluntarily choked himself to death on the food. Worse off, their daughter Betsey (Jessica Alexander) is there taking in the traumatic sight.
One year later and visibly still grieving on the inside, no one in the family, which also consists of Betsey’s younger sister Isabelle (Ruby Stokes), talks about the loss, even when certain characters and dynamics get weird, making it feel increasingly necessary to discuss. In defense of director Ruth Paxton and screenwriter Justin Bull, maybe the point is to comment on how families allow themselves to be torn apart from fear and an unwillingness to have serious conversations and cope, but if it is, it’s a poorly expressed message that might as well be nonexistent.
The gist is that Betsey, who is already internally cracking from pressure involving college and deciding what to do with her life, not to mention the trauma above, has an awkward encounter with her partying friends that leads to wandering outside alone and observing a blood-red moon. Betsey also appears to be touched by something mentally, coming under the impression that the end of days is nigh and that there is no purpose anymore of eating because her body is in service to a higher power.
During one particular captivating scene anchored by believable and expressive performances (a combination of mounting frustration from Sienna Guillory and nuanced craziness from Jessica Alexander), Betsey refuses to eat a well-prepared home-cooked dinner (the cinematography from David Liddell zooms in on the preparation and other details such as mouths). Reasonably irritated, Holly begins removing some of the food from Betsey’s plate, to no avail. This continues until there is nothing but a single green pea left on the dish. Betsey tries to consume it, only to choke on it in a reaction similar to her father’s death, although in this case, it seems as if she genuinely cannot keep the food down. Nevertheless, no one brings up the past.
It’s evident that Betsey is not well, so Holly begins taking her to various doctors, all while losing patience and becoming more outwardly verbally aggressive. A case could be made that the script shows how losing that cool is problematic for a parent and causes more dilemmas in the long run, especially when it’s something along the lines of an eating disorder. That is until Betsey, after a flash-forward of six months, still hasn’t lost any weight. During that time, her condition and biblical ramblings about the apocalypse have only become more unhinged, with Holly just now considering that a psychiatric ward might be the best course of action. It’s a decision Holly also decides against upon realizing that visitation is minimal and would essentially separate her from her oldest daughter.
As a result, Holly starts believing and enabling Betsey’s behavior, which comes with neglect for Isabelle. At one point, Holly’s mother (played by Lindsay Duncan) shows up, with the film teasing some answers as to what’s going on, only to result in more questions. It appears that Holly and her mother have also had a fractured relationship in the past. There is also a folklore tale that could tie into what’s going on but primarily exists as an excuse for the filmmakers to insert a nightmare sequence that, while visually chilling, isn’t elaborating or providing depth to the story or characters. One positive note throughout all of this is that Isabelle is given slightly more to do, frustrated by the situation, while still caring for her older sister; Ruby Stokes and Lindsay Duncan proved to be as equally strong as the leads.
A Banquet doesn’t go anywhere, resting on the laurels of simplistic symbolism without doing anything thoughtful or intriguing with it. There is a sense that the script and direction never evolved beyond the basic concept, even if there is an atmospheric sense of dread throughout and an unnerving quartet of performances. For a film that grounds itself in reality, some of the narrative also stretches credibility in a way that’s difficult to suspend disbelief. That’s just something you can’t do if your movie also has nothing interesting to say about its many serious themes.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com