For many years I would chat genially with our local Jehovah, Stephen, who came door-to-door every few months or so, always hopeful that one day I would let Jesus into my life. (Will he babysit, I would always ask. Will he pair socks? Will he interrupt me during dinner LIKE YOU?) Then I actually read one of the Watchtower magazines he always left behind and discovered that if your husband is violent and beating you then you need to ask yourself: am I being a sufficiently loving wife? Next time Stephen appeared he was doing his rounds with a teenage girl so I looked her in the eye and said: ‘If a man beats a woman, it isn’t and can never be her fault.’ And that was the last I saw of Stephen. (Not strictly true, in fact, as he’s often hanging around the bus stop. But he never knocked again.)
So this is what I knew about Jehovah’s Witnesses, and it was all I thought I ever wanted to know about Jehovah’s Witnesses, thanks very much. You live your life, I’ll live mine. But Apostasy, a British drama about an all-female Jehovah family living up north, is brilliantly done, extraordinarily fascinating and emotionally powerful too. It was made in three weeks for £500,000 — a 300th of the latest Mission Impossible budget although, to be fair, no one here has to skydive through a lightning storm — but it says so much with so little, and says it sensitively and quietly.
Apostasy is a debut feature from Daniel Kokotajlo, who was raised as a Jehovah in Oldham, and his first-hand knowledge means we instantly know this is rooted in something deeply and personally felt. It is set somewhere in Manchester and stars the always-wonderful Siobhan Finneran as Ivanna, mother of two daughters: the older, Luisa (Sacha Parkinson), is at college while the younger, Alex (Molly Wright), is just about to finish with school. They are all ‘in the Truth’ and attend the meetings, go door-to-door, submit to their ‘elders’, shun their own birthdays and understand they will never be able to have a blood transfusion. Alex accepts this even though she suffers from chronic anaemia. ‘There is no such thing as the soul,’ her mother tells her. ‘That’s for false religions, airy-fairy Catholics. There is the body and blood and it’s Jehovah’s design and to mess with it is the worst sin.’ Her mother says this softly, calmly, with absolute belief. Kokotajlo keeps everything unassuming and low-key because while this could easily be an angry film, it isn’t. And it gets its power from that.
Alex is wholly compliant but Luisa is beginning to question, then hooks up with a Muslim boyfriend. This threatens to tear the family apart: will Luisa be ‘disfellowshipped’? Will Alex and Ivanna have to cut off contact from her? You’ll think Luisa is key until, at around the halfway mark, there is a twist that is entirely unexpected and devastating. Ivanna does suffer, but she is so certain about the ‘new system’ that will emerge once the current world ends her inner humanity can’t hope to compete.
The script is superbly restrained, as is the direction, which delicately handles extremely painful situations. Nothing is ever clumsily spelled out. We understand, for instance, that this is a patriarchy simply by seeing how the women are judged and controlled by the ‘elders’, who are all men, and who would otherwise be plain window-cleaners. The cast are tremendous. The always-wonderful Finneran is, well, wonderful, but they all carry the emotional weight as if it were nothing. And you will understand Ivanna, even if you can’t agree with her. Meanwhile, I still sometimes wonder about that teenage girl on my own doorstep. I hope she’s OK.