Few things in film are more dispiriting than the spectacle of very good actors giving very bad performances — and there’s already a surfeit of onscreen gloom for viewers to contend with in “The Silent Storm.” A sincerely but shakily conceived narrative debut for writer-helmer Corinna McFarlane, this uber-dour study of marital collapse casts Damian Lewis and Andrea Riseborough adrift as an abusively ascetic Scottish minister and his lonely, browbeaten wife, yielding characterizations of such unchecked intensity as to steer the proceedings to the point of parody. The stars’ respectively high profiles may secure limited distributor interest in this London festival premiere, but it’d be best for auds and actors alike if this particular storm were to blow over as silently as possible.
With the unlikely figure of 007 keeper Barbara Broccoli on the executive producers’ bench, “The Silent Storm” isn’t the fictional venture one might have predicted from McFarlane, who previously co-directed 2008’s cheery comic documentary “Three Miles North of Molkom.” That pic observed an exuberant New Age gathering in the idyllic Swedish countryside, and any viewers looking for factors binding the two films won’t get much further than a remote rural location — in this case, an all-but-deserted island off the coast of Scotland. (Filming took place on the Isle of Mull, though the area isn’t named onscreen.)
It’s a setting of imposing beauty, though McFarlane and d.p. Ed Rutherford (who shot Joanna Hogg’s last two features) have little interest in travelogue imagery, shooting much of the film in dun, weather-smeared tones that match the characters’ depleted interior lives. “There will be no way to hide from the light on this island,” says joy-allergic Protestant pastor Balor McNeil (Lewis), though the filmmaking frequently suggests otherwise.
The period is as imprecise as the geography: Costume and production design point to the 1940s, though the film does succeed in evoking a locale where decades could pass without any visible change. Balor is struggling to retain his congregation, and not just because of his punishing sermons and decidedly iffy people skills: With a local mine having recently shut down, the working population is heading en masse for the mainland. There’s no such lucky escape, however, for Balor’s meekly servile wife, Aislin (Riseborough), a gentle soul whose cultural interests and amateur dabblings in homeopathy are discouraged outright by her husband, a man who advises his parishioners that the pursuit of happiness is a form of arrogance.
Aislin suffers a stillbirth at the film’s outset, causing the McNeils’ already fraught relationship to deteriorate further: “You are a failed mother and a failed woman,” her husband helpfully tells her, “and you will rot in the belly of hell.” It’s fair to say the marriage is beyond therapy: An inadvertent intervention arrives in the strapping form of Fionn (newcomer Ross Anderson), a juvenile offender sent to the rectory for rehabilitation. Resenting the intrusion, Balor prescribes Fionn various forms of hard physical labor; Aislin, meanwhile, takes a distinct shine to the soft-spoken, poetry-reading misfit. The two are given plenty of time alone as Balor lustily dismantles his church and transports its pieces to the mainland. Passions rise in the requisite manner, though the ensuing love triangle is as tension-free as it is blatantly telegraphed: Lewis’ demented man of God has so little going for him that Aislin’s choice barely seems like one at all.
Saddled with an affected, rusty-nail Scots accent only a few gargles away from Groundskeeper Willie territory, Lewis cranks the wild-eyed fundamentalism up to 11, varying the volume but delivering counsel and hurling insults at precisely the same pitch of fevered insanity. It’s disappointingly strident, monotonous work from an actor still seeking a worthy bigscreen gig to follow up his Emmy-winning work on TV’s “Homeland.” Riseborough is given a few more notes to play, though the performance alternates them with implausible abandon: She’s either fearfully clammed up or violently spilling her guts from scene to scene, while her own accent yo-yos from Edinburgh to Iceland. (It’s implied that she comes from afar, another point of obvious irritation to her husband.) Given her understanding of natural hallucinogenics — revealed in an excruciatingly misjudged trip scene that sees the island’s foliage briefly turn a nuclear tint of Kermit green — she may as well be a time-traveling Molkom transplant from McFarlane’s last film.
McFarlane’s direction is neither assertive enough to shape or temper these emphatic, frequently heightened lead turns, nor creative enough to meet them halfway with some brazen stylistic gambits of its own — Alastair Caplin’s oppressively literal choral-based score notwithstanding. Flanked as it is by such dramatic flailing, Anderson’s quietly sympathetic, emotionally grounded film debut (soon to be followed with appearances in Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” and Justin Kurzel’s “Macbeth”) looks all the more impressive.