With inquiring sexual politics and evocative visual language, Christopher Newby’s under-viewed Anchoress is ripe for revival in the current folk horror vogue. Based on the real-life case of Christine Carpenter, who in the 14th century was entombed as an anchoress – a woman walled into a cell to commit her life to prayer – Newby’s vision of the medieval is thick with mud and repression, yet also allows for moments of tranquility and mundane beauty rarely seen in depictions of the period. In a system where to be seen is to be controlled, Newby questions whether Christine’s cell is a Woolfian “room of one’s own”, the only escape from the dogmatic stricture of religious authority, or whether she has escaped one religious prison to enter another. 

Christine Carpenter is a beautiful, somewhat vacant teenager growing up in a medieval village. Uninterested in either her mother’s fiery pagan feminism or the lecherous village reeve, Christine spends most of her time building elaborate shrines to the Virgin Mary. The smarmy village priest, played with a sometimes awkward intensity by Christopher Ecclestone, encourages Christine to become an anchorite, which will bring prestige to his parish whilst locking away her potential for dissent. This power-grab backfires quickly: once Christine has been confined to her womb-like cell, she begins quietly subverting the village authorities, encouraging local women to give in to their desires and creating a barrier to male entry. As the enmity between Christine and the priest grows, the howls of the wind and the skitter of insects grow louder, as if mocking the fragility of his authority in the face of nature’s inconquerable wildness. 

If men represent the daily maintenance of ideology, it is women who scratch its patina. Christine, played with Bressonian restraint by Natalie Morse, is demonised – not so much due to her refusal of the reeve and more because her devotion to the Virgin Mary takes place outside of the structures of male power. Yet if the rejection of male power is made too explicit (as in the case of Christine’s mother Pauline, played with disruptive aplomb by Toyah Wilcox) the consequences are brutal. In an upsetting scene towards the end of the film, Pauline is left to drown by a witch mob including her own husband, whose pliability has turned an essentially sympathetic man into a monster. There is a biblical, fable-like quality to Anchoress: its characters are less personalities than universal figures in the perpetual cold war between authority and resistance. 

Whilst the formulation of masculinity as organised and femininity as organic is eternally contested, Anchoress is arguably more interested in exposing the self-serving nature of all religion, the way in which we weaponise our beliefs in the realisation of our own agenda, equally true of Christine as it is of the priest. Yet Newby is not an atheistic filmmaker: once walled, the pleasures of Christine’s everyday life take on an increasingly psychedelic flair – flowers drift in pools with odd predestination, masturbation comes a religious act, hair is woven into wheat – all rendered in handsome, rich monochrome. If there is a conclusion to be drawn from Anchoress, it is that in spite of the best efforts of dictatorial systems, individual vision can never be entirely suppressed.

Watch Anchoress on TANKtv.