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Thursday, April 11, 2024

Review: 'The Wanting Mare' Is the Most Visual Fantasy in Recent Memory

For deep, mysterious reasons probably having something to do with beauty, power, freedom, and fantasy, children love horses. I know I did. We grew up down the street from a stable, and though I mostly avoided the living, breathing, perma-pooping real things, I collected their likenesses in the form of toys and figurines. I owned a great many, some pretty expensive, but my trustiest steed was a cheap, small, brown stuffed-animal pony attached to a key chain. Our relationship wasn’t exactly beautiful or fantastical, but it was powerful and freeing: Whenever someone would come around the house, I’d gallop him over to the top of their head, park him there, and explain that he was going to go potty now. His name, naturally, was Poopy.

No such juvenilia intrudes upon the rather more adult-ish proceedings of the new film The Wanting Mare, in which horses neigh and stamp at the margins of a bleak, majestic world. But insofar as The Wanting Mare is about sad, far-future horse-people dreaming of a happier, more magical past, my recollections of Poopy feel appropriate. Essential, even, to the experience of a work of art that wants its audience to dig up the memories and the lives they’ve buried within the myths of their creation.

The Wanting Mare is the first full-length film of writer-director Nicholas Ashe Bateman, and I’d love to know if he’s a horse boy. Certainly he’s steeped in fantasy lore, for his film is something of a visual veneration of the genre, down to its formal construction. Like any good epic, it begins with some prologue text and an overhead map of the land. We’re high up, looking down through the clouds on a dark, twinkling city. Whithren, it’s called, a land of perpetual, suffocating heat. On its northern shores, the rare horse is known to roam. Everybody wants out, but the only place to go is Levithen, the icy land to the north. Once a year, the Levithenians send a ship down to Whithren to steal horses (for deep, mysterious reasons). They’ll take you back, too, if you can kill the right people for a ticket.

If this sounds like a conventional fantasy, some reverse Game of Thrones where winter isn’t so much coming as going, it’s not. The Wanting Mare is much quieter than that, a little story set in a huge world. Often, it feels like you’re not processing a story at all, merely flipping through the pretty pictures. And maybe reading a caption or two. It’s kind of miraculous, in that way: fantasy as essence, not as explanation.

But a story exists, for those who need one, and by the end, it’s surprisingly coherent and complete. There’s a girl (Jordan Monaghan), and she has a secret. Her matrilineal line carries with it a dream of a world that was, a “world before.” Every night, the women dream this dream, which might be a nightmare, burning them up with regret. You see, Whithren is sick, a postindustrial wasteland of human misery, built on the bones of a better time. Most of the horses are gone.

Then, she meets a boy, and a spark of joy lights the darkness. Bateman cast himself in the part—for budget reasons, he has said—yet he does sensitive, careful work, and he and Monaghan seem to share a real connection. Cue the falling-in-love montage sequence: such a common thing, in movies, but uncommonly lovely here. It should last forever, but it doesn’t. Moira is still tormented by her dream, and she wants to leave this miserable place. Will the boy help her?

There it goes again, sounding conventional when it’s not. Of course, this is how movies should be. Words alone are deceptive or incomplete, because the medium is also, and equally, beyond words. And this is the most visual fantasy film to appear in a while (at least since Mati Diop’s Atlantics, which came out a couple years ago and shares with The Wanting Mare a horror-romance of the sea). Bateman has a special eye, or at least a gift for special effects. A self-taught VFX phenom, he and his single-digit crew of collaborators spent five years on The Wanting Mare, digitally manipulating who knows what backgrounds and green screens to create the sunsets and vistas of Whithren. Something like two-thirds of the film was shot in a warehouse, but who cares, because you’d never know it. Other things that barely matter: the awkward time jumps, underdeveloped characters (one in particular named Eirah), and some amateurish club scenes involving a lot of blue light. What The Wanting Mare offers is a fully built world for you to inhabit and stare at, broken down but still sparkling—not a narrative to pick apart.

Then there are the horses, not often seen, but startling when you do. In this, too, The Wanting Mare is essential fantasy. Horses are bound up in the very core of the genre, an ancient equine entwinement. Perhaps they evoke premodernity, spirits of an original land who, on occasion, give birth to gods. Also, they are playful and transporting and uncontainable, like my precious stuffed animal Poopy. Who still lives, happily, in my childhood bedroom, a reminder that the purest expressions of our psyches are also, sometimes, the most ridiculous.

The Wanting Mare is a serious thing, a mature fantasy, but it’s also a dream, and you overinterpret it at your peril. Like, do horses even like water? Would you ever find them splashing along a shore? You do in Tolkien, who summoned steeds out of a surging river, and in Peter Beagle, who trapped his last unicorns in the ocean’s frothing waves. And now in Bateman, for whom the horse, that mythical borderland beast, contains both the hope of a land’s promise and the means to its redemption. It’s made up. It’s serious and childish at the same time, and therefore deep and mysterious. It rushes toward you, a tide of horses, and bears you back into the lost wilds of the past.

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