***the following review of “A Congregation of Ghosts”, and subsequent interview with director Mark Collicott, were written in 2010 & 2011 and were published on myfilms2010.blogspot.co.uk. I am posting them here to try and raise awareness of a film that I believe to be one of the great lost works of British cinema.***
A Congregation of Ghosts – Glasgow Film Theatre – 20/2/10 (GFF)
“A Congregation of Ghosts” has received a lot of attention because of it being the last major work that Edward Woodward completed before his death late last year. A much-loved actor who never really realised his potential, certainly on the big screen, he is probably best remembered for his role as Sergeant Howie in the cult horror “The Wicker Man” and as “The Equalizer” on television. That, however, does him a great disservice as he was a very fine actor (the youngest ever graduate from RADA) and one who deserves to be remembered as a “great”.
Fortunately, director Mark Collicott gave Woodward a role, which will stand as a fitting testament to his talents as the real life Reverend Densham who is the central character here. A minister who arrived in the small Cornish town of Warleggan in the 1930s and who almost immediately managed to upset his entire congregation with his piety, which ultimately resulted in his preaching to a church filled with cardboard cutouts for nearly thirty years as the members of the community, boycotted his services.
Densham appears to have been a man out of time and out of place. He had spent some years in India where he had developed a deep interest in, and affection for, Ghandi, he was a vegetarian and he was a genuine eccentric of the sort we no longer see. It is perhaps not surprising that his congregation found it difficult to take to him, this, after all, is a small community in the remote Bodmin Moor area of Cornwall and the idea of a minister in a tall, black, stove pipe hat wearing no socks and espousing the ideals of Ghandi must have seemed very peculiar. Add to that the fact that Densham also painted garish murals on the walls of the Church and daubed biblical place names on the doors of the rectory (which remain there to this day) and you have a man who was never likely to be embraced into the bosom of the locals.
The film itself is a beautifully told and lovingly created mixture of real life and ghost story. Collicott mixes the story of Densham with the later story of a young couple who purchase the rectory many years after his death. The husband, Ellis, is planning to write a novel but soon becomes obsessed with the former minister and even starts to see him in the grounds of the Church. As he falls deeper under the influence of Densham, through old sermons he finds in the home, his marriage falls apart and he is left, like Densham, alone and isolated in the house.
What really makes this film is the performance of Woodward. It is a brilliant piece of screen acting. He is utterly magnetic and very convincing as the pious, eccentric and yet lovable Densham. He seems almost to be aware that this may well be his final performance and as a result, he delivers, to my mind, his finest performance. It is a fitting legacy to a talent who was loved by many.
For Collicott to have delivered such a beautiful, story driven, film and to have directed such a wonderful performance from Woodward, says much about his abilities, as a director and I would hope that we see much more from him in the future.
An Interview with Mark Collicott
At the GFF in 2010, I decided to catch “A Congregation of Ghosts” only because it was the last film role of Edward Woodward. I did not know anything about the film or its director Mark Collicott. I did not have any expectations and I certainly did not know that I was going to see a film that would leave me breathless by its end. What I saw was a beautiful, tender, moving and brilliantly crafted ghost story that was not a ghost story…a film that in a perfect world would have catapulted director Mark Collicott into the public conscious. The fact that we are a year on and very few people have seen the film is a comment only on a world that continues to mistake a big budget and special effects for art. Make no mistake “A Congregation of Ghosts” is a genuinely brilliant film and is one that deserves to be seen by a much wider audience.
“It’s a thoughtful and thought provoking story” is how Collicott describes his films and he is right. Telling the true story of Reverend Frederick Densham, a pious minister who took up post in the small Cornish village of Warleggan in 1932 and proceeded to upset and alienate the bulk of his congregation and who ultimately preached his sermons, faithfully, to rows and rows of empty pews, which, in the film, he fills with haunting scarecrow figures. Ostracised by his community Densham died a lonely and tortured figure in 1953. The film intertwines the life of Densham with the lives of a young couple who move into his home and who slowly fall under the spell of the old minister. Thoughtful and thought provoking is exactly what this is.
“It’s not a blood and guts movie, Danny Dyer doesn’t pop up in a gunfight at any point. It is an intelligent British film, driven by a great story and featuring some great acting. It’s also a serious film which isn’t all that common…when you look at something like “Sherlock Holmes” or “Burke and Hare” they’re played for laughs but “A Congregation of Ghosts” isn’t.”
It is sad that a British film driven by story cannot find distribution or an audience and yet something like “Pimp” can get a cinema release and, no doubt, pride of place in the DVD section of HMV. What is wrong with the film industry in Britain? “There is interest from various European countries, which may seem strange, but I think that’s because of where it is set…the picturesque background, the Englishness of it may well be attractive to a foreign audience” says Collicott. What struck me most about the film was that it bore a striking resemblance to the work of Powell and Pressburger, particularly to “A Matter of Life and Death”. “You’re exactly right, I think that this film, while it may not be on that level, is certainly very true to the likes of “Black Narcissus”, “A Matter of Life and Death” and maybe even “Peeping Tom”. The film captures the period really well I think and that may be why there is a similarity to the feel of Powell and Pressburger.”
Collicott himself has a background in photography including a spell working on the New Musical Express. Looking at the film it would appear that that has influenced your style as a filmmaker. There are several moments when what is on screen could pass for a photographic image. Has your background influenced your approach or am I reading too much into things? “I also worked in advertising at Saatchi and Saatchi and I do think that I try to work in a very visual way. Because of my background, I think I try to direct the actors and not the action, which is what, helped Edward to give the performance he did. I guess that my background aids the process of making a film.”
“Despite coming from the area where Densham lived I wasn’t aware of his story until a few years ago when a friend of mine who lived on Bodmin Moor told me about it. I thought it was an amazing story. The idea that this man, Densham, could live the life he did; working as a missionary in India, being inspired by Gandhi, then ending his life completely alone and ignored by his congregation and having met people like John Betjeman and Daphne du Maurier, who wrote about him, it was just incredible to me.”
The film features an incredible performance from Edward Woodward, a fine actor who never really got the roles he deserved. Best known for “The Wicker Man” in which he plays another pious, God-fearing man cast adrift in a community who have anything but his best interests at heart this performance acts as a fitting tribute to his talent.
“Edward had a memorial service after his passing and at that the last clip they showed was from “A Congregation of Ghosts” and that was very emotional for me. With the British film industry in the doldrums Edward went to the States where he was very successful…he won Golden Globes and Emmys. The workload, I think, began to take its toll on his health and that might be why he never became a “big” name in movies. He is a brilliant actor and I think that this performance will remind people of that.”
What Mark Collicott has created is a very beautiful film and yet distribution remains elusive. If it were me, I would throw my toys out of the pram and head off to a dark room to cry about it. Thankfully, he has other projects already underway and with a little luck, other people will see “A Congregation of Ghosts” and other people will understand that in Mark Collicott the British film industry has a director who wants to deliver films and stories not “product”.
“It’s very hard to get distribution in cinemas but I stand by the film. Maybe we should have had Danny Dyer and blood and guts but that is not what I wanted to do. I wanted to make a film that would mean something to people but it seems that people are frightened to take a risk. I’m not downhearted and it hasn’t put me off in anyway.” That is something we should all be grateful for.