With a minimal budget and a minimal cast, Winnipeg filmmaker Danishka Esterhazy makes a disproportionally outsize impression with her impressive first feature, a beautifully shot gothic period drama about two sisters, and the man who comes between them.
Shot near Tyndall, Man., Black Field is largely set on a ramshackle homestead in the late 19th century where two sisters subsist, two years after the deaths of their father and brothers.
Maggie McGregor (Sara Canning of The Vampire Diaries) is the elder, distressed by the hard life in which she finds herself, but stoic in her resolve to maintain the family farm while caring for her 14-year-old sister Rose (played by the ethereally lovely young Winnipeg actress Ferron Guerreiro).
The situation may resemble an especially bleak variation of Little House on the Prairie until a man arrives on the homestead to add a large helping of sexual tension. David Latouche (Mathieu Bourguet) is an itinerant French-Canadian trapper who asks for a place to rest his horse. The proper Maggie refuses. David stays anyway, working for his board.
He stays long enough to insinuate himself into the heart of Maggie's naive younger sister. Rose may be seen clutching a children's book, but she is evidently harbouring notions of more adult entertainment. Hence, one morning, Maggie wakes up to find both of them gone. Her day-long foot trek to her next door neighbour's home yields the information that David is a fugitive wanted for questioning by the local detachment of the Northwest Mounted Police in connection with a murder.
In making this movie, Esterhazy attempted to transplant the gothic genre of the Brontë sisters to a desolate Canadian prairie setting, and she succeeds most spectacularly in the look of the film. In collaboration with gifted cinematographer Paul Suderman and production designer Ricardo Alms, Esterhazy saturates the frame with striking images -- diffused, lantern-lit interiors and the gorgeous, bare-treed desolation of an early prairie spring.
Esterhazy's script yields surprises too, with both the women characters demonstrating knife-edged animus that, while entirely credible, is not at all anticipated.
The film has its minor flaws. In the role of a possibly dangerous seducer, Bourguet comes off more as a weedy conniver. He's no Heathcliffe.
As Rose, Ferron Guerreiro vividly portrays the notion of sexual awakening as a destructive force, faltering on the technical side: Her lack of a strong accent suggests she and the very Scottish Maggie were raised by different families.
Sara Canning, however, commands the screen as Maggie. Her performance embodies the yin-yang of tenderness and ruthlessness that embodied the frontier woman.
Presumably, writer-director Esterhazy has those qualities herself in getting this film made and in endowing it with surging emotion beneath the chilling exteriors.
With Black Field, she announces herself as a Canadian filmmaker to watch.
n Starring Sara Canning and Ferron Guerreiro
3 1/2 out of 5 stars