It’s ironic that the fantasy genre, for all its promises to sweep us away to a world of, well, fantasy, has fallen into such a pattern of predictability. Despite an abundance of dreams, magic, and epic quests, most fantasy worlds still look like medieval Europe. There are exceptions of course. Space fantasy films like Star Wars, desert punk worlds like those of Mad Max, the multi-verse of His Dark Materials, and the imaginations of Hayao Miyazaki and Guillermo Del Toro put a new spin on fantasy worlds. But they are exceptions amongst the crowd. Don’t get me wrong. The Lord of the Rings films, The Dark Crystal, and anything Arthurian are obsessions of mine. But I’m always wanting the genre to step up and upend my expectations.
Enter The Wanting Mare, making it’s impressive World Premiere at the 2020 Chattanooga Film Festival. Written and directed by Nicholas Ashe Bateman, this visually entrancing film constructs a powerful generational story in an entirely original fantasy world. And it was shot on an indie budget, partially crowd-funded, and realized by a self-taught team of production designers, filmmakers, and visual effects artists over ten years! Yet the most astonishing feat of The Wanting Mare is how seamless and real its imaginary world of Anmaere feels. It’s mindblowing to learn that the film was shot in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Nova Scotia, on sets, in warehouses, and AirBnBs. The film so effectively pulls you into its world that you don’t for one moment question the reality of what you’re seeing.
“[The Wanting Mare] so effectively pulls you into its world that you don’t for one moment question the reality of what you’re seeing.”
The Wanting Mare tells a story that spans thirty-five years, set in the seaside city of Withren and its surrounding cliffs and moors. The wild horses that roam the moorlands are gathered and sent across the sea, in a trip that takes place only once a year. The land to which they go is a city of endless winter, the mirror opposite of the relentless heat of Withren. A ticket for human passage on the ship is a rare and valuable commodity. On the coast of Withren dwells a line of women, each with a special inherited ability. Every night, they dream of how the world used to be; a world of forgotten magic. One night, one of these women, Moira (Jordan Monaghan) rescues a young criminal named Lawrence (writer/director Nicholas Ashe Batemen) during a robbery attempt, setting off a cycle of longing that spans generations.
The Wanting Mare is a film sparse on dialogue and exposition, challenging the handholding style of world-building common in more mainstream fantasy. It throws the viewer headfirst into the world of Anmaere with no lengthy prologues or explanations of how this universe works. Instead we have the stunning scenery of Withren to tell us we’re in a world that, while familiar, is also very unlike our own. The 500 digital effects shots of the film were primarily used to create the unique locations, from the rocky cliffs and moorlands to the cobblestone alleys and tiled rooftops of the city. Yet the effects are so seamless that I was wondering “Where did they film this?” throughout — convinced I was seeing location shots. Production designer Cassandra Louise-Baker’s brilliant work imagines a world that is just dreamlike enough to be a fantasy landscape, yet she keeps things grounded and tangible so that we are never too overwhelmed by the world to follow the story.
The beautiful script forgoes lengthy dialogue, instead opting for brief, poetic exchanges that offer surprisingly effective windows into plot and character. The Wanting Mare is a demonstration of the power in a less-is-more approach — using montage, music, and the talents of its cast to pack generations of emotion and theme into a 90-minute runtime.
And what a cast! Everyone is excellent, with standout performances from Jordan Monaghan and Christine Kellogg-Darrin as Moira at ages 25 and 60 respectively. Their portrayals seamlessly flow into each other to fully convince the viewer they are witnessing the same person at different points of her life — a difficult feat to accomplish. Edmond Cofie is brilliant as Hadeon, an enigmatic character from the latter half of the film whose subtle arc was surprising in its emotional impact. But this is really a wonderful ensemble in which each performer does incredible work conveying generations of inherited emotion with limited words.
But the most impressive accomplishment of The Wanting Mare was how much its story and world stuck with me after the credits. The film offered a tantalizing glimpse into a new world and the lives of those who inhabit it while leaving so much open to the imagination. The film left me with an aching longing not unlike that experienced by its characters. I didn’t need to understand why a ticket aboard that annual boat was their deepest desire. I didn’t need to see what that wintery world they dreamed of looked like (although what is seen is wonderfully intriguing). I didn’t need anyone to explain what happened to separate the presentation of this world from the magical “before” time. I felt it all. I felt the pain of seeing the world that came before in taunting dreams. I felt the regret of the characters for their past mistakes and their deep yearning for a new start.
The Wanting Mare is a remarkable narrative driven by emotion first, and it makes me wish more fantasy films would follow suit. I hope that Batemen continues to explore stories set in Anmaere, a possibility hinted at in the extensive world-building set up in the film. Like any good fantasy world, I wanted to return once the story was over. And like the characters of the film, I wanted to journey beyond the horizon and discover more.
“The Wanting Mare is a remarkable narrative driven by emotion first, and it makes me wish more fantasy films would follow suit.”
The Wanting Mare is celebrating its World Premiere at the 2020 Virtual Editon of the Chattanooga Film Festival. The festival is open to residents of the United States and badges are now available at www.chattfilmfest.org. Be sure to check out all of our Chattanooga 2020 Coverage HERE, and let us know what your favourite films at this year’s fest are over on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!