The Cursed Ones is a British film helmed by a Ghanaian, Nana Obri Yeboah, and penned by Maximilian Claussen. On its agenda is witchcraft – not the Harry Potter kind. It reaches for a darker real-world resonance that some in my part of the world may be aware of. Unfortunately, its grasp falls short. This is in large part due to this film’s stuttering narrative and tonal incoherence that fails to match its gorgeous aesthetic.
The central character cum audience surrogate of The Cursed Ones is middle-aged Journalist Godwin Ezeudu (Oris Erhuero). It is probably sometime in the 90s and he is on his way to a fictional (West African?) village to cover its annual festival, the kind of festival that will only strike an outsider as interesting if things go horribly wrong. Thankfully things do. As custom dictates, the huntsmen dash into the forest in war paint and bursting biceps to capture, not kill, a deer before the massive bonfire that has been set runs out. But for the first time in some 200 years, the hunters are unable to capture a deer.
The leader of the hunting party, Ayomide (Kwaku Ankomah) shoulders the blame for falling short and the film gets its first foothold to climb the mountain of superstition. By this point, we are aware Ayomide and his childless wife, Chinue (Ama K. Abrebese) have fostered a seemingly mute girl (Ophelia Dzidzornu). She was found creepily tucked in some bushes in the forest one stormy night during a hunting expedition. They welcome her in their home, name her Asabi and raise her as their own. But following the mishap at the festival, she becomes the target of witchcraft accusations.
Indeed, before the festival went south Asabi was a pariah among her peers, understandable given her backstory. I say peers but Dzidzornu is probably 15 years old but she sits in a classroom with kids around age 10 – weird but not the most distracting thing this film does. The film proceeds to builds on the superstition as more unfortunate events occur placing Asabi firmly in the crosshairs of the church. The power of Christ will compel whatever demon resides in the girl if Fred Amugi’s haughty Pastor Uchebo has his way. Another figure, Paladin (Jimmy Jean-Louis), wields more traditional beliefs and also sees Asabi as a curse on the village that must be cleansed.
The line between the crimson-clad Paladin and Pastor Uchebo is blurred; subtle foreshadowing the film’s resolution in hindsight. Uchebo’s attempts at an exorcism begin with intense prayers through to having Asabi leashed to a tree trunk; reminiscent of how some mentally ill persons are treated in this country. We still observe all this through Godwin’s eyes. There is a disquieting naiveté to Godwin as he is outraged at the superstitious opiate this rural community is hooked on. He comes to Asabi’s defense along with a younger preacher and school teacher, Pastor John (Joseph Otsiman) who acts as some conduit for empathy.
But there is little nuance to the theme of witchcraft and its tie in with religion. The Cursed Ones has a message – bad things happen to young girls nationwide and on the continent because of witchcraft accusations. I knew that going into the screening. What Claussen’s screenplay lacks is perspective anchored by strong storytelling. It has very little to say about what it means to be on either ends of the religious and implicit gender oppression spectrum. As a student of sociology, I have come across textbooks and ethnographic accounts that paint a more layered and compelling picture of this dynamic.
It doesn’t help that the character at the centre of the witchcraft accusation has little personality, albeit deliberately so. Dzidzornu as Asabi has a withdrawn cadence cutting a cowered figure for most of the film with her ever distant eyes. We watch her through Yeboah’s stationary objective lens as she does little else and never has her moment making it difficult to connect. We have to rely mostly on her foster mother for a second hand emotional connect but that’s not the real thing. I needed more from Asabi, something via the visuals that spoke to the audience, if not the characters around her or at least offer some concrete answers to why she is the way she is.
The tone of The Cursed Ones also fails to convince. It’s hard to when it looks like a conventional drama when Asabi, Chinue and co take centre stage. It then draws on film noir when we assume Godwin’s perspective with the brooding over-narration with the striking luminescent cinematography (from Nicholas Lory). The film is lit by incandescent bulbs and bonfires at night and the daytime horizons are painted in an appealing bleak sepia hue. The narrative also collapses into something resembling some tactless work from a 90s comedy when it tries to tie up its plot, undercutting the already limited exploration of religion and culture.
Along with the strong DP work, the film can derive some credit from the way Yeboah handles the camera. He seems to make the village more tangible with each shot of rusted iron sheets or the kid’s playground or enforcing the isolation of this village with wide shots of the bushes that stretch over hills. The script subtly complements this with an understanding of the language of film. Consider the school children presented in their white and a church congregation clad in black or the cross that appears inverted among others. Claussen’s script hits nice beats like this save for the final act.
The performances are generally fine, and by fine I mean nobody puts up a stinker. Of note is Abebrese who has quite an engaging trajectory and is afforded the opportunity to demonstrate range. Chinue’s arc has her navigate the maternal spectrums of grief, angst and anger quite convincingly as the dynamic around her foster child unravels. I also liked Amugi’s turn as the preacher bent on ridding the village of Satan. There is a subtle underlying menace to his motives that resonate if you understand the precarious positions Christianity has conspired to find itself in over the years.
The Cursed Ones ultimately says more about religion than the message it purports to wield. But does the film say enough? Is this community blinded by religion or is there something to be said for the fear of the unknown? Are these questions even relevant given the appalling twist at the end that sours the goodwill we have and confirms we cared nothing for the protagonist? Is the antagonist even clearly defined? There is enough of interest here to mull on – some performances, the impressive visuals but the story is carved out with a pretty blunt knife.