Directed by: Nicholas Ashe Bateman. Starring: Jordan Monaghan, Josh Clark, Yasamin Keshtkar. Runtime: 1h 29 min. Released: February 5, 2021.
We’ve seen so many worlds in so many franchises, all with vast world building. Most of these films take on huge budgets – from Panem in The Hunger Games to the gigantic world of the MCU – but Nicholas Ashe Bateman’s The Wanting Mare proves that it doesn’t take a budget of over $100 million to create a convincing world like that. Sometimes you just need a great production team and time to do so.
This film takes us to a world called Anmaere, where we focus specifically on the city of Whithren. This is a city plagued by an intense heat; and everyone who lives here dreams of escaping to the continent of Levithen across the sea, where it’s winter year-round. The chance to get there comes once a year where a giant ship docks in Whithren to transport its most valuable export of wild horses. On this ship, there are tickets the people can get to travel to Levithen, but these tickets are highly coveted.
The object of the ticket and how some people to try to acquire it is the source of a lot of the film’s tension, as well as a couple of brief scenes that feel like a heist where people try to take tickets from shady characters. Besides the world building, the actual heart of the story and the narrative itself follows the family of Moira (Jordan Monaghan), a descendant of a line of women who share the same recurring dream every night.
One of Nicholas Bateman’s boldest choices as director is to never explicitly tell us the recurring dream, although it seems they simply dream about the possibility of the winter city Levithen and what being there would look like. That is the core of the film here, where these characters dream of a better life somewhere else, to escape Whithren. The world Bateman has created is not directly apocalyptic, but visually it feels set up with Whithren as a dystopia; Levithen as utopia. Similar to the 2019 French film Atlantique where they escape poverty to another country for better wages, the dream of something better here makes these films feel like spiritual cousins.
And visually, this has a sense that it is apocalyptic but hopeful, as there is an imprint of the old world in this one. As well, if The Wanting Mare is set up as a fable, it’s mostly to cherish our own world currently before we lose it. There’s something that feels off about Levithen, as well, like it’s too good to be true and something you can’t put your finger on (which is the tone this attempts to portray). This has to do with the blue screen in the film. It’s not a bad thing – it appears designed to give a sense of serenity and gorgeousness, as well as something subtly unsettling and artificial. It all looks completely convincing, beautiful and poetic.
The care in the visuals is felt here and the prowess with it, with Bateman’s creation of this world in direction, writing, visual effects and in acting; David A. Ross’s great cinematography; as well as the late Cassandra Louise Baker’s production design. This trio work together to bring this all to life in a world you could live in – which, again, seems like it would be both serene and unnerving.
I’m talking a lot about the visuals and technical aspects here, but the performances and story are strong, too. I found the story to be confusing in its editing at times as while it follows the line of women with this recurring dream, the flow of the narrative goes through chapters of different women, with Moira and Lawrence (Nicholas Bateman); then Eirah (Yasamin Keshtkar) and then Maxine Muster’s character. When it flows into Eirah’s story, we first meet a character called Hadeon (Edmond Cofie) monologuing and since we meet him before Eirah, I found it confusing trying to figure out what he had to do with Moira’s story.
As well, there’s a moment here that I wouldn’t dare spoil, but with some of the surrealism in storytelling and not knowing whether it’s dream or reality, the way in which one scene flows into a very emotional moment, it’s such a big scene that I felt like I had missed something. It’s an emotional moment where I thought the full impact of it was fumbled because there’s no build-up to it and it comes out of nowhere.
The way it happens feels consistent with the way the film is edited (the editor role is also filled by Nicholas Ashe Bateman) with its somewhat surreal storytelling. I kind-of just wish that scene was handled differently. As well, if some things appear confusing when they happen, mostly everything makes sense by the end of the film.
Those are main faults here; but I still felt these characters and loved the epic romantic story between Moira and Lawrence that bookends the film. They’re the heart and soul here, especially in the scenes they spend in an old music studio that has echoes of the world before. These scenes are neat and make the score, by Aaron Boudreaux, have a great hand in creating the sense of magic and fantasy here.
And that’s the thing with The Wanting Mare, the importance is on the characters and how the film makes you feel, and the mood of the film more so than its narrative. Bateman’s writing has beautiful prose and scenes that capture the essence and mood of the film. It’s a project where even on blue screen, Anmaere is a world that feels like it could exist, because the characters, story and visuals leave such an impression.