REVIEW: Censor (2021)

dir. Prano Bailey-Bond.

There’s a moment early on in Censor – Prano Bailey-Bond’s feature debut which builds on her 2015 short Nasty – where two film examiners discuss the history of eye-gouging. Enid (Niamh Algar) sees it purely as the latest excess of envelope-pushing “video nasties”, a depravity that needs to be quashed. Colleague Sanderson (Nicholas Burns) is more philosophical, linking splatter flicks to a rich tradition including Shakespeare’s King Lear or seminal early film Un Chien Andalou (1929). Enid is dismissive of course, but it sets out one of the film’s central conceits: the line between trash and art is fluid, and liable to be transgressed; a description that becomes emblematic of Censor itself.

This is not, though, the only malleable boundary, with reality itself also subject to change. It soon emerges that Enid was traumatised as a child when her sister went missing, a loss exacerbated by the fact that she can’t remember what happened. Haunted by this edit to her memory and a pervasive sense of guilt, Enid’s sublimated grief simmers just below the surface, expressed in her intolerance of cinematic violence as she seeks to protect others from such allegedly harmful material. Work and repressed pain start to blur however: firstly when she sees a film by exploitation provocateur Fredrick North – “Don’t Go Into The Church” – the opening sequence of which seems to bear a striking resemblance to the events that night her sister went missing; and secondly there’s a tabloid scandal brewing when a murderer (who may have been inspired by a film that Enid passed) claims he cannot remember the horrific crimes he committed.

This idea that the human brain can self-censor to form its own narrative starts to spiral within Enid as she becomes obsessed with North and whether he may hold answers about what happened to her sister. Accordingly though the deeper she goes into the mystery, the deeper she goes into herself: Enid’s mind unspooling like an old VHS tape filled with disturbing, half-erased images.

Bailey-Bond marshals these different tiers of self-reflexivity into a thrilling ouroboros snake eating its own tail, the line between text, meta-text and para-text in constant transition. For just as one disreputable video store clerk serves an under-counter banned title – warning it will be “Fuzzy in the good bits” – so too as Enid’s mind strains and she yields control to her own psychic trauma the texture of the film itself begins to break down, recalling Peter Strickland’s superlative Berberian Sound Studio (2012).

It’s a magnificent debut, demonstrating assured directorial control and boasting an equally calibrated performance by Algar who projects a woman slowly sinking in her own celluloid screams. There’s also some cracking support – including the ever fabulous Michael Smiley – whilst the culture war of the 80s is effectively evoked. If there are some slight tonal wobbles in the last act this is off-set by the strength of some of those closing images, the power of which will remain – burned into your brain – long after the video ejects. As one character says, “People think I create the horror, but I don’t: horror is already out there in all of us”.

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Tim Coleman

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