DIRECTOR Paul Hyett WRITER Paul Hyett; Conal Palmer; Adrian Rigelsford; Helen Solomon (concept) STARS Rosie Day; Sean Pertwee; Kevin Howarth CINEMA 21 June
REVIEW UncleBob Martin
I am somewhat a prude. Where I live, in the American Southwest, one cannot speak with men here very often without someone sooner or later [when no women are present] jumping into a conversation about a drunken weekend spent in Tijuana whoring.
I’m such a prude that I feel obligated, when these conversations surface, to point out that only poverty could motivate young women to whore themselves so affordably to Yanqui tourists, and that as long as the sex trade is profitable, it will be an impetus to men to keep young women in the impoverished state that motivates this trade. People quickly learn not to raise this topic with me.
So to review a film that concerns itself with human trafficking requires some careful consideration on my part. In the first few minutes of The Seasoning House, director Paul Hyett, with the aid of an unerring cast, creates a portrait of a brothel in the war-torn Balkans, populated by kidnapped and imprisoned women, that is both unrelentingly grim and, thanks to careful attention to detail, painfully convincing. It is this sense of conviction, and an apparent commitment to realism over entertainment, that prevents The Seasoning House from seeming immediately an exercise in exploitation in the mould of Eli Roth’s Hostel — although Roth’s films are clearly part of the inspiration for the work.
No small part of the film’s feeling of commitment stems from the compelling performance of Rosie Day as Angel, a deaf-mute whom we meet when her family is brutally murdered in front of her, before she is hauled off to be imprisoned in the whorehouse, where she is exempted from sex work due to a modest facial birthmark [perhaps the least realistic premise we are asked to accept through the entire film]. Instead, her job is to ‘prepare’ the other girls, which seems to consist largely of aiding their recovery from the brutality of their customers, and shooting them with heroin.
Kevin Howarth plays the brothel boss Viktor, who one moment asserts his ruthlessness with a girl’s slit throat, the next projects a seductiveness that is part silk and part lizard. In the course of the film, Howarth offers an X-ray view of his character’s psyche that comes close to convincing us that he thinks of himself as one of the good guys.
As Angel adapts to her surroundings, a girl arrives who knows sign language, which motivates Angel to navigate through the house via its ventilation ducts for frequent visits to her new friend, the brightest light in her grim world. Of course, the story arc demands that this light will be savagely dimmed, and the instrument for that is the arrival of Sean Pertwee, as the leader of the gang of thugs that killed Angel’s family in the film’s opening moments.
When the story takes this turn, there is a sharp shift in gear, and to some extent the film loses its carefully constructed texture of grim realism as it delivers the revenge tale promised. There is a brief period when Angel, out of reach from her pursuers in the ventilation ducts, seems about to go Bruce Willis on us and engage her foes in a war of attrition, Die Hard style. That mistake is thankfully avoided. But as the film winds up, we are left wondering why the filmmakers exerted so much skill and effort in building this particular hell? So that we might learn that raping women is bad?