WILDERNESS, directed by Justin John Doherty and written by Neil Fox, is an absorbing study of a seemingly blissful relationship, gone awry over a weekend getaway. Starring Katherine Davenport and James Barnes, the drama paints a convincing portrait of a relationship bursting with intensity, yet battling some very realistic struggles.
Jon and Alice, the film’s main protagonists, are a passionate and devoted couple who travel to Cornwall for a romantic weekend away. Once they arrive, however, there’s an ominous sense that trouble is afoot as the cracks begin to show. The film skilfully dissects the couple’s relationship over a short timeline, exposing the vulnerability beneath. Rising tensions effectively enable the couple’s fragility to surface through a variety of means, be it the strong performances of the cast, the effective and relatable dialogue, or the tense, drawn out sequences deployed.
A particular highlight of WILDERNESS is a scene around a dinner party, where the couple spend a drunken evening with some of John’s old friends. As elements of John’s past creep into the ether, the party becomes increasingly awkward. It is at this point that we realise that not only do we not know much about John and Alice, but they don’t know much about each other either. As the film’s tagline suggests, the two are in love with the idea of each other, which openly leads to a thoughtful inspection of their romance. Throughout the film there is a shift in the character arcs – Alice becomes progressively frustrated, leaving John rattled with self-doubt.
The problematic nature of the central couple is not a weakness to the film. What works in WILDERNESS’ favour is the presentation of the couple’s flaws- neither John nor Alice are likeable 100% of the time, and we can relate with both of them to some degree. John Cassavetes, an icon of independent cinema, is an important influence, shown through the film’s clear sense of honesty and deep examination of character struggles.
Cinematically, WILDERNESS is an impressive piece of filmmaking, with some gorgeous shots of the stunning yet isolated Cornwall location, paralleled with long, patient shots of our lead couple. The soundtrack is filled with jazz pieces – Lonely Woman by Ornette Coleman opens the drama alongside a well-edited sequence of a jazz band playing (John is a jazz musician), with Alice’s admiring eyes cut in amongst the instruments.
With a simple storyline and a very small cast at its centre, WILDERNESS is an effective piece of storytelling, bravely engaging and ambitiously shot. Thoughtfully constructed, this careful examination of a fraught yet loving relationship is a smart addition to the Cambridge Film Festival programme.