A gorgeously shot and atmospheric tale inspired by classic ghost stories, “The Haunting of the Lady-Jane” builds slowly to a powerful ending.
After the unexpected death of her father, Lily (Natasha Linton) finds herself estranged from her religious mother and older sister, both of whom blame her for his death. However, it’s unclear why until much later in the film. They confront her at the funeral, say vicious things to her, and accuse her of being a dirty sinner.
Emotionally scarred, Lily manages to rebuild her life on her own, channeling her pain into a cathartic and highly successful writing career.
As a renowned voice of female empowerment, Lily reaches out to a young activist and aspiring influencer, Zara (Bryony Harvey), and invites her to tour the country with her. Lily hopes she can get to know Zara better and write about her for her next book.
The trip with Zara gets off to a rocky start as the two women seem to have little in common besides some potentially unshared past trauma. Lily becomes frustrated with Zara’s social media obsession and lack of seriousness. Zara only wants to have a good time, and she finds Lily’s uptight and seemingly judgmental demeanor off-putting.
Still, Lily is determined to make the most of their time together. Thus, when Zara sees a flyer advertising a free barge trip to Birmingham along the British canals, the two call up the barge owner, Willard Monk (Sean Botha), and make arrangements to meet him.
Once aboard Willard’s Lady-Jane, Lily is at first apprehensive, tuned off by Willard’s religious devotion and superstitious inclinations. As two single female passengers sleeping aboard a boat with a man they don’t know, she’s naturally cautious of red flags — like a bathroom door that conveniently doesn’t close right. Soon, however, Lily and Willard begin to bond over their shared frustration with Lily’s incessant videotaping and constant clout chasing.
With so much unspoken between them, the insight into Lily and Willard’s backstory comes slowly, drip by drip, via a series of flashbacks.
The film masterfully maintains the slow-burning tension and mystery about who these people really are and what dark secrets they keep hidden away.
When Willard tries to ask about Lily’s family, she immediately shuts down the conversation. But Willard has mysteries of his own, refusing to discuss why he’s traveling to Birmingham or what happened to his late wife.
One night, while out enjoying a night at a local pub, Zara meets a man who tells her a ghost story about a murdered woman who haunts the canal, and she’s anxious to capture some spectral evidence in an effort to generate viral content for her channel.
Lily is quick to dismiss talk of the supernatural as nonsense, while Willard sends mixed messages. In one breath, he’s assuring Zara that the only hauntings are the ones in the minds of the passengers traversing the lonely canals. In another, he’s sharing his own ghost stories — introducing the girls to the tale of RAN, a vengeful water spirit who claims the souls of sinners — and even helping the girls conduct a seance using the Ouija board he happens to have at the ready.
When Zara becomes convinced she’s seeing and hearing things, neither Lily nor Willard believes her.
Meanwhile, Lily’s sister, Kayleigh (Rosanne Priest), calls her to apologize and begs her to come home to make amends. But Lily is too traumatized and uninterested in reconciliation.
The film excels in keeping viewers invested by establishing multiple intriguing mysteries.
Why is Lily estranged from her family, and what sins is she running from? What happened to Willard’s ex-wife? Is he a lonely, God-fearing man who helps others out of altruistic kindness? Or is he harboring more sinister intentions? Are there supernatural forces at play, or is it simply human malfeasance? Is RAN real or just a manifestation of guilt and suffering?
Writer/director Kemal Yildirim was heavily inspired by writers like M.R. James, Charles Dickens, and Susan Hill when writing the script, especially Hill’s Woman in Black. As a big fan of British film and television from the 60s and 70s, particularly folklore and supernature horror, films of that era like Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw helped inspire the look and feel of the film.
From the start, he knew he wanted the film to have a classic look and to be anchored by stunning landscapes.
I can’t stress enough how visually captivating this film is and how breathtaking the cinematography is. Not only does it make watching the film and taking in the ethereal scenery quite a treat, but Yildirim uses landscapes — and the increasing sense of isolation — creatively to help shape the story and the characters in the film.
Much like the works that influenced Yildirim, The Haunting of the Lady-Jane is a slow-burning mystery that puts human drama at the forefront. It relies heavily on an eerie atmosphere and tension rather than overt scares or explicit horror.
Patience is required to fully enjoy this gorgeous piece of filmmaking.
This is for genre fans who appreciate unease created by the unknown and those comfortable with a ghost story that’s more about human trauma than terrifying specters.
It’s much more The Haunting (1963) than The Amityville Horror (1979), much more The Others (2001) than The Conjuring (2013).
As Willard states, during a pivotal scene in the film, “The journey is more important than the destination.” The Haunting of the Lady-Jane invites you to take a ride with its three broken passengers as they navigate through troubled waters to find redemption. You’re asked to allow the film’s mysteries and magic to gradually unfurl.
Rest assured; patience is rewarded with a climactic and highly cathartic ending that makes the destination as fruitful as the journey.
Well-produced, beautifully shot, and boasting solid performances from its small cast, The Haunting of the Lady-Jane is a sumptuous, slow-burning film that should delight fans of classic ghost stories.