Philip Stevens’ debut feature Lapwing settles down in an isolated community at the mercy of the drunken and violent whims of its self-designated leader in 16th century England. The arrival of an ‘Egyptian’ family nearby can only make things more complicated.
England, 1555. Queen Mary has decreed that Egyptians or ‘gypsies’ are illegal in England, and must leave the country or be executed; anyone consorting with them will meet the same fate.
But Lapwing has no other reference to royalty or the court – it is a film set outside, among a tiny community of people scraping a living from sea salt on the coast of England. Living in tents, this small group works together under the leadership of David (Emmett J Scanlan) to keep hunger at bay. However, David is failing in his leadership, succumbing to the temptations of drink and gambling and with a violent temper. He is a nasty piece of work, and sadly one whose intimidating and menacing attitude towards women is still recognisable today.
David’s wife Lizzie (Sarah Whitehouse) bears his abuse in the hope that she will soon have a child, but David’s attention is wandering to Lizzie’s younger sister Patience (Hannah Douglas), who cannot speak and who is ridiculed by David at the same time as he harasses her. The rural, isolated community is shaken one day when a small Arab family approaches the village to wait for their transport away from England. Patience is attracted to the son Rumi (Sebastian De Souza), and her brother-in-law is not pleased.
Lapwing is a gently-paced, low-key film in drab colours embodying the coastal landscape and hand-to-mouth existence of workers in the 16th century. While the community feels threatened by the very presence of the outsiders, the real menace comes from within, from the abusive ‘leader’ of the group permanently poised to brazenly commit fraud, rape, or murder to advance his own circumstances.
Scanlan is relentlessly scheming and is disturbingly intense around Patience, invading her personal space and knowing that she can do nothing about it. The downside to his performance is that for portions of time it is difficult to understand what he is actually saying. I’m not sure if it is the way he delivers the lines through his clenched teeth, or whether there is an issue with the sound – although it’s pretty obvious what the general tone of the content is so I missed perhaps a little detail rather than any intent.
Hannah Douglas has the trickiest task, of course, having to constantly convey Patience’s emotions without words, and through the frustration that her lack of voice presents on occasion; she gives, without doubt, the stand-out performance of the cast.
Lapwing is a sparse 89 minutes in length, and the plot is minimal, but the takeaway must surely be the unfortunate fact that violent men continue to rule the roost unchallenged, forcing women into either submission or extreme action. The 500 years between the film’s setting and the film’s audience have sadly made no difference.
It’s certainly an interesting debut from director Philip Stevens, who has done an excellent job with tone and atmosphere in sparse surroundings.