If you’ve seen The Wicker Man (1973), and then go to see its successor film The Wicker Tree (2011), you will probably leave feeling that the 1973 original is the better of the two films. Yet now that it’s been about 12 hours since I’ve seen the new one, I have to admit the new one is growing on me.
The film starts with images of a group of pagan revelers, dancing around with firebrands. This scene, filmed in slow motion and partially out of focus, sets a dreamlike quality but also lets us know that eventually we’re going to see these people again. And since we have all seen the 1973 film we know they are celebrating someone’s death. Then we’re taken to Dallas, Texas, to meet our heroes: two young and innocent and starry-eyed and cute-as-can-be Christian evangelicals about to embark on missionary work in Scotland. One of them, Beth Boothby (Brittania Nicol), is a famous gospel singer, and so her arrival in Scotland is something of an event. But when she and her cowboy boyfriend Steve (Henry Garrett) go door to door delivering missionary pamphlets, all they get is rejection. Cue the entry of Sir Lachlan Morrison, played by silky-voiced Graham McTavish, who invites our heroes to try and evangelise the people of his village, Tressock. Wicker Man fans might enjoy the homage to the previous film in certain names. Morrison, here the name of the local lord, is possibly related to Rowan Morrison; and Nuada, the god of the sun worshipped on Summerisle in 1973, here serves as the name of the company that manages a nuclear power plant.
When we arrive in Tressock, signs of a flourishing pagan culture are evident immediately, from the icon of a pagan goddess on the hood of a car, to the apparent sexual licensiousness of nearly everybody: and this was a little disappointing. I would have liked that reveal to have been a little more subtle. But then again, we’ve all seen the 1973 original and we all know what to expect. The locals are polite to Beth and Steve, and even sing along to one of their Christian hymns at a prayer meeting. Then they invite our heroes to become the May Queen and the Laddie in an upcoming festival. And that’s when we as the audience are sure they’re doomed. What remains, then, is to see exactly how they meet their doom. In a way, the film is about the inexorability of fate: Lord Summerisle himself says as much in a cameo appearance. So the plot of the film is an unfolding of Beth and Steve’s fate. We as audience members know what is going to happen: all the mystery and surprise is in how it happens. In that sense the film is a bit like a prequel.
It is for this reason, perhaps, that some of the supporting characters can be quite casual, even clownish, about some very macabre activities. And through them the film attempts a kind of marriage between comedy and tragedy. I’m really not sure that this marriage worked.
At times the inexorability of the plot prompted in me a feeling of shadenfreude, as our pair of all-American poster children for virtue are so easily manipulated and deceived by the people of Tressock. But I also felt a lot of pity for them too. Their relationship with each other, and with themselves, really sustained the film. Like Seargeant Howie before them, they are religiously upright and committed, which gives their characters a solid basis. They are the two normal people in a world full of eccentrics. But unlike Howie, they are not fully pure. And the subtle struggle within each of them to live up to their new commitments interested me. Beth, for instance, secretly misses the career she had before becoming an evangelical. And Steve showed some genuine cognitive dissonance after an afternoon of infidelity with local nymphomaniac Lolly (Honeysuckle Weeks). By the way, Lolly’s libido turns out to be driven not by hedonism, but by despair. If you can infer exactly what her despair springs from, I hope you will agree she has one of the finest emotional moments in the film. I’d best say no more about that, lest I spoil any more of the plot.
I must also say, there were some moments at the end I genuinely didn’t expect. Beth and Steve met their fate as we knew they would, but the shock you feel when director Robin Hardy’s thesis is revealed – the thesis that great evil can come when people’s beliefs in the rightness of their actions is strong enough – came from an unexpected direction. This too helped make up for the weaknesses of the film: the unstable union of comedy and tragedy, the wooden-ness (dare I say wicker-ness?) of some of the characters. I’d give the film three out of five stars, although somehow I feel as if I should be giving it more. There’s still lots of depth and richness to be explored in the world of the Wicker Man, and lots more terrors to be seen as well. Robin Hardy, if you’re reading this, I hereby volunteer to write the script for the third film.