Sundance Film Festival 2021: Censor (2021)

The 80’s and 90’s were drenched with authority figures trying to grasp what society consumes might lead people to do. There was the Satanic Panic, the Central Park Five, violent video games, and the fear of things like The Matrix and how these would impact violent and abhorrent crime. Of course, these were all scapegoats for larger systemic issues.

Prano Bailey-Bond’s, Censor, explicitly tackles our societal fear and hysteria surrounding violence by following Enid (Niamh Algar) as someone on a film censor team that functions like the British version of the MPAA. Enid becomes obsessed with a new picture that’s up for consideration and how it might link to the disappearance of her sister decades ago. The viewing of the exploitation horror film coincides with Enid’s sister being declared dead in absentia.

But, what if her sister is alive? What if she’s been hiding in plain sight this whole time? Enid’s already fragile mental state unravels faster and faster as she chases down the answers to if her sister is still out there somewhere.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

These obsessions stem from a guilt that her sister’s disappearance is her fault. As Enid meticulously pours over the footage of eye gougings, rapes, and brutal decapitations, amongst other violent acts, she considers it her duty to protect viewers from what might trigger them.

There is a metatextual element of Censor that makes the film interesting, if not fully successful. There seems to be something left on the cutting room floor. The third act rushes to a conclusion that is too thinly explored to have a true resonance.

Bailey-Bond shows a considerable skill behind the camera. The world on display feels like a grimy grindhouse feature that was left behind a shelf for years, just now being discovered and unearthed. She also fleshes her cast out with an excellent array of performers that make the proceedings feel like a Hammer horror film with a cast that has complete awareness of the film they are making. Algar as Enid gives a committed and resonant performance that teeters on the edge of a mental break. She’s in nearly every moment of the movie and much of the success can be attributed to her ability to ground the script even as it begins to misstep.

As part of the Midnight screenings at this year’s Sundance, Censor is fun, but never quite as wild as what it’s a pastiche of. There is a predictability that somewhat drains the impact and tension of many of the setpieces here. As effective as it can be in certain scenes, there is an inevitability from moment to moment that makes the action fall slightly short of the potential on display. If nothing else, this is a true calling card for Niamh Algar and Prano Bailey-Bond.

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