Based on his novel Cowboys For Christ, director Robin Hardy’s third film in nearly forty years has the word ‘Wicker’ in the title, features Christopher Lee and is based around Pagan worship and rituals but is in no way, shape or form a sequel to or a remake of his 1973 cult masterpiece The Wicker Man. No, it isn’t…
Okay, maybe that’s a bit facetious but it goes without saying that The Wicker Man has a legacy and reputation that is hard to live up to, especially when you consider how long it has been since that film was made. Like with The Thing that came out last year, revisiting a film made a long time ago means that certain criteria need to be met to please the fanboys whilst maintaining an identity of its own, and whilst The Thing tried hard but was ultimately let down by the dodgy CGI that couldn’t hope to live up to the original’s groundbreaking use of prothetics, The Wicker Tree doesn’t have to succeed or fail on the special effects. The Wicker Tree needs to be able to build suspense, work at a pace that keeps the viewer invested in the unravelling story, keep an air of uneasiness throughout and have well-rounded characters that you can relate to. Does it have those things? Well… not quite.
The plot centres around Beth (Brittania Nicol) and her fiance Steve (Henry Garrett), two Born Again Christians from Texas who travel to Scotland to spread the word about Jesus. Beth is a former pop singer who has turned her back on fame and stardom to perform gospel songs with the church, whilst Steve also has a past that is hinted at but never divulged. Having no luck at trying to convert the locals the couple are approached by Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish), the Laird of the village of Tressock, and his wife Delia (Jacqueline Leonard), to come to their village to perform for the locals there.
Whilst in the village Beth and Steve are introduced to various local folk who go out of their way to make the couple feel welcome, so much so that Sir Lachlan and Delia ask Beth and Steve to play a central role in the upcoming May Day celebrations. Unaware of what awaits them the naive couple accept the invitation, but as the villager’s eccentric behaviour seems to get more and more odd, Beth and Steve realise that not everything is quite as it seems in Tressock.
Considered by Robin Hardy as a companion piece to The Wicker Man, The Wicker Tree tries very hard to recapture the essence of what made that film so special, and although it could be said that overall it doesn’t there is a heart here and it isn’t the total travesty that most nay-sayers would be so quick to name it. The main thing that lets the film down is the shallow characterisation and the irritating performances of the two main leads.
It could be argued that Edward Woodward’s Sergeant Howie in The Wicker Man was a bit of an unsympathetic character with his preachy manner and holier-than-thou attitude, but Woodward’s performance sold the character and his interactions with Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle – especially the scene where they first meet – are the heart of that story and what drives it. Unfortunately Beth, and to a lesser extent Steve, aren’t quite so deep as Howie and the drama school performances from the two actors fail to sell what lightweight material they are given. It is hinted that Steve was a gambler and a drinker before finding God, but these types of plot thread are never followed up and consequently, as a viewer, you can’t help but root for the villagers when the time comes.
Delia and Sir Lachlan make for interesting characters and although their past is never delved into, it doesn’t seem to really matter how they became like they are. Rambo star Graham McTavish brings a bit of much-needed fire-and-brimstone to the role, and although he isn’t as charismatic as Christopher Lee he does anchor the film well. Former Eastenders star Jacqueline Leonard seems to relish the role of Delia with equal glee, and although she isn’t given much to do the dynamic of having a couple overseeing events rather than just one man adds a slightly more sinister dynamic to the unfolding events.
Christopher Lee also pops up for a cameo appearance, and although he’s wearing the same shirt, tie and tweed jacket he was wearing in 1973, according to the man himself on his website this character bears no relation to Lord Summerisle. Whatever, it’s a nice call-back and his appearance adds a little weight to the film.
There’s also the traditional songs that are peppered throughout that are obviously designed to recall the The Wicker Man, although these appear to be more shoehorned in than is totally necessary and simply aren’t as memorable. The cinematography is superb, evoking the back-to-nature feel that the film needs and although the climax tries to be as shocking as before, it was never going to live up to Woodward’s terrifying cries as he was led up the hill by his tormentors.
Overall, The Wicker Tree is a decent enough thriller that by its very nature isn’t going to live up to expectations. Although it is well directed and shot the characters aren’t very well written and come across as irritating, and the blackest-of-black comedy that The Wicker Man had running through it is pushed to the forefront a little bit more, making it feel a little less sinister. Destined to forever stand in the shadow of a true classic, The Wicker Tree won’t change your world and may well keep you entertained enough for an hour-and-a-half, but it’s very doubtful that we’ll still be talking about this film in forty years time.