To quote Keanu Reeves, “I love movies.” While he has the joy of making them and watching them, I love them for their transportive abilities. They can move you through time to see a version of what has been, expel you to the future to see what might be, or just take you on an adventure through now. Where movies differ from other forms of art with a similar properties (music, books) is that movies’ sight and sound work in combination to capture the imagination. Once ensnared, our possibilities of where to go are truly endless. Enter writer/director/actor Nicholas Ashe Bateman’s feature debut The Wanting Mare, a tale that takes its audience to a time separate from ours where what we want always seems out of reach despite it being right in front of us. Bateman’s story is more a dreamscape of visual poetry than concrete narrative, an aspect which makes The Wanting Mare a paradox: breathtaking and philosophically rich in on moment, hollow and emotionally vacant in another.
Whithren is home to Moira (Jordan Monaghan), an orphan girl gifted with dreams of a time long ago when the world was filled with magic and wonder instead of being the sweltering barren land that it is now. Since her mother died in childbirth, her mother was unable to explain the dream or the fact that the same dream is passed down from mother to daughter, as it has been done for generations. Because of this, Moira longs to escape the city as she believes that there must be something greater out in the world. As luck would have it, she meets Lawrence (Bateman), a young man who survives by stealing tickets for passage across the water. Their meeting may be chance, but the impact ripples for decades to come.
If you’re not familiar with Bateman by name, you’ve likely see some of his visual effects work in projects like Free Solo (2018), Save Yourselves! (2020), Wendy (2020), and the perpetually postponed The Green Knight (??). If all you see is a still of The Wanting Mare, you’ll immediately be struck by Bateman’s creative eye for imagery. It’s not just the placement of the actor, but the use of light and color in unison with staging that creates moments that are truly awe-inspiring. There is weight to each composition, whether in the juxtaposition of the person in relation to an object or the way the world itself seems constantly in twilight, there is a constant sense of pressure and frustration. Because of this, the persistent “want” of his characters transcends the screen, making some moments truly unbearable to behold. What’s most impressive is that the majority of what we see on screen Bateman and his team constructed digitally, making that hyperreal sense of Whithren truly extraordinary in the seamless blending of raw real and tweaked and designed CG. As is slowly revealed in The Wanting Mare, the core of the film is about the concept of “want” versus “have.” These conflicting ideas create within the minds of the characters a sense of otherness, making them separate from the world they exist within because they aren’t satisfied. Put simply, The Wanting Mare is an exploration of “the grass is greener” metaphor made all the worse for Moira who has seen for herself the lacking of this world compared to what was. She is in a permanent state of exasperation due to hindrance of this knowledge. There is no today that can satisfy as tomorrow has to be better. The concert of tangible sets and actors with computerized magic creates a concerto of wonder that makes Moria’s present, at any time, seem full of possibilities.
But metaphor alone can’t sustain The Wanting Mare. Bateman constructs a visual wonder that captures the imagination, but shorts the narrative by focusing so hard on the intensity of emotion. What’s this mean? Anytime Moira’s dream of The Time Before is brought up (by her or others), it doesn’t carry the weight of meaning as what The Time Before is never explored or explained in contrast to what Today is. As such, The Time Before becomes a symbol of restlessness that we, the audience, can never quite latch onto. When she and Lawrence come together and then separate, the reasoning why is never truly explained, leaving nothing but unspoken regret hanging in the air. This is a natural way that individuals may engage with each other, sure, but it’s far less satisfying as a viewer. See, “the unspoken“ requires tension, either from the audience knowing what the characters do not, or from the characters knowing something not yet revealed to the audience, except Bateman rarely reveals anything. This compliments the dream/poetry elements of the film but is reductive to the whole. So much, for instance, is made of the fact that Moira never learns that her dream is something to be kept secret, says the official description. Why this matters is not once explored in the film. Why is the possession of the dream important, why women of this family, and why must it be kept secret? With so much emphasis on this and the getting away, “the unspoken” becomes a hindrance to truly understanding the ideas Bateman wishes to convey.
Viewing The Wanting Mare reminds me of one of my favorite poems by E.E. Cummings, “Amores, I.”
Much in the way that E. E. Cummings used spacing and line placement to convey tone, pacing, and, to some degree, intent, so does Bateman do the same within The Wanting Mare. Love is, truly, a mixture of having and wanting. To be as one with another means recognizing something missing in yourself that you can share in having with another to make two pieces whole, traditionally speaking. The Wanting Mare explores that need, that persistent desire for something grander than what is in front of us, totally unaware that what we seek exists entirely before us. Crafted as a sumptuous visual treat, The Wanting Mare conceptualizes the feeling of that need, that want, that desire well. Expressing it, however, is another story entirely.
For more information, head to the official The Wanting Mare website.
In select theaters and VOD February 5th, 2021.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.