Lucky McKee‘s 2011 horror The Woman is a vicious cult favourite, which sees a wild woman captured and degraded by a monstrous subversion of the All-American family. Strikingly portrayed by Pollyanna McIntosh, the Woman is a savage allegory of nature against civilisation writ large as she turns the tables on the violent misogyny of her captor. With the mantle of the late Jack Ketchum‘s pulp creation passed to her, McIntosh turns her attention to religious hypocrisy in an uneven but entertaining follow up that dares to lighten the mood of its grim predecessor.
A feral girl (Lauryn Canny) is dropped off at a Catholic hospital by her mother The Woman for initially unknown reasons. An unscrupulous Bishop (Bryan Batt) sees an opportunity to fill the empty pews of his diocese by proving the miraculous civilising power of the Church and the girl (known only as Darlin’) is spirited off to a care home where a team of nuns try to tame her. Meanwhile The Woman tears through anyone in her way as she tries to track down her daughter.
Despite being a direct continuation of the events of The Woman, Darlin’ is a very different beast. McIntosh finds dark humour in the attempts of the nuns to mould their new charge to their template. The most sympathetic to Darlin’ is Sister Jennifer (Nora-Jane Noone), a former addict seen as a success story of the methods used, but who is of course also an example of the Church’s charity not being altruistic for the sake of it. Darlin’ is played with innate intelligence by Canny (who here resembles a younger Florence Pugh if painted by John William Waterhouse), shown as an intuitive learner but with an innocent’s grasp of metaphor. When it’s revealed she is pregnant the fire and brimstone teachings of the Bible lead her to believe it’s a literal devil inside her.
There’s an empathy and melancholy fondness for the outsider present that evokes McKee’s lovelorn modern Frankenstein May more than it does The Woman. The film’s lighter moments show Darlin’ responding to the friendship shown to her by the other young girls at the home – assorted misfits and victims – who have fallen through the cracks. The Mother herself also takes temporary shelter with a motley assortment of homeless dropouts, her wildness viewed as one more eccentricity among many. McIntosh uses the intense physicality of her character to lean into the comedy. Hitching a lift with a kindly nurse she leans out the window like a dog enjoying the breeze. Some may see this as a betrayal of the character, but when she suddenly snaps back into savagery again it reminds us how much we’ve been identifying with her.
Where Darlin’ falls down is in the anti-religious aspect. The message is fine of course, but it plays like a brick dropped on a record instead of a needle. Batt’s Bishop is pure obvious villainy, like he’s sauntered in fresh from playing Richelieu in an am-dram Three Musketeers, and a reference to the Catholic church’s even less savoury reputation with the children in its care is an obvious and unnecessary step too far.
While muddled and unsure what it’s actually trying to be, Darlin’ deserves credit for actually daring to be different enough from its predecessors (this is actually the third iteration of the Woman character, the first being the little-seen Offspring from 2009) to function on its own terms. It would be perfectly possible to see this as a standalone film. It’s occasionally a message in need of a narrative, but Lauryn Canny is brilliant in her evolution of character and there are enough moments of satisfying nastiness to keep fans of the previous entry happy.