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Film Review: In Vivid “His House,” the Ghosts Are Real

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 29th, 2020

Film poster: “His House”

His House (Remi Weekes, 2020) 3½ out of 4 stars.

The horrors of the real world are often too overwhelming to contemplate, the accumulation of tragedy and grief numbing the mind beyond comprehension. How many documentaries about the many refugee crises of our era can we watch before our cumulative reactions blur into an inchoate Edvard Munchian scream? And yet these stories deserve telling and merit witness. Sometimes, however, the best approach is an indirect one, perhaps embedded in genre filmmaking. Enter Remi Weekes, who with his feature debut His House demonstrates not only a strong visual style but a powerful ability to make watchable that which is unbearable. Coupled with strong performances from Sope Dirisu (The Trip) and Wunmi Mosaku (Ruby in HBO’s Lovecraft Country), Weekes’ mise-en-scène plunges us into a cinematic nightmare made all the more disquieting because of its grounding in the humanitarian catastrophes of today.

Bol (Dirisu) and Rial (Mosaku), husband and wife, are overjoyed when their number comes up at the refugee center in England where they have been living since they left war-torn Sudan. In flashbacks, we see them with daughter Nyagak (Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba), then see hints of how they lost her while crossing the sea by boat. Still, life goes on, and it’s time to adapt to their new home, especially once they are given a house to move into. It’s nothing special, though Mark (Matt Smith, the younger Prince Philip in Netflix’s The Crown), the government official who shows them around the place, repeatedly mentions that it’s bigger than where he lives. Nothing special? It’s actually a dump, with loose wiring, rotting food and rats. Bol and Rial certainly have their work cut out for them.

l-r: Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba, Wunmi Mosaku and Sope Dirisu in HIS HOUSE ©Netflix

Those labors are made even worse because their status as “provisional asylum seekers” can be overturned for any infractions, the list of which is long. Still, Bol is optimistic that they can adapt; Rial, not so much. And at first it seems as if the primary drama will revolve around whether or not their white working-class neighbors accept them. But then the noises and visions start, and soon the film becomes something quite different.

That would be a meditation on the burden of survival and the price to pay for having done whatever was needed to make it through. There are secrets buried deep within Bol and Rial’s psyches, which come into vivid being at night, inhabiting the walls of their dilapidated rowhouse and haunting their waking moments, too. There is no escape from the past, and everyone has ghosts. Here, they are just more present than elsewhere. In His House, they are the foundation of memory, and represent the inescapable sin born of desperation. Both victims and perpetrators, our protagonists are uniquely themselves and universally the entire human race, tortured souls and all.

l-r: Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku in HIS HOUSE ©Netflix
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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