When it’s on: Tuesday, 27 September (11.05 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
Movies about exorcism continue to be good box office, years after the original The Exorcist hit the screens. Quality varies. Most seem content to rehash Friedkin’s 1973 classic, with direct sequels and even a rebooted TV version by Fox showing there’s life in the old dog, even if it’s very much one with fleas. Many films make an effort to lend credibility to their sensational content by claiming links to true stories, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose is no different in that regard. Its inspiration is the real-life case of Anneliese Michel, a German woman who died in 1976 after attempts to exorcise the demonic spirits possessing her couldn’t halt her demise through malnutrition and dehydration. While the courts found the priests and her parents guilty of negligent homicide, their sentences were minimised to suspended jail terms, which transformed the case into a worldwide sensation. The devout continue to make pilgrimages to her grave.
Michel’s story is here Americanised by Scott Derrickson and focuses on the legal drama that takes place after Emily’s death. Laura Linney plays Erin Bruner, a defence attorney appointed on behalf of Father Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson), the priest in whose care Emily had placed herself and who helped her to reject medical care in favour of a spiritual cure. Bruner, a religious Agnostic with a successful defence of a suspected serial killer who’s gone on to repeat his crimes behind her, wants the Priest to plea bargain, but he isn’t interested. In his eyes, Father Richard isn’t guilty. He worked according to Emily’s own wishes and believes he did the right thing. The trial is his opportunity to tell Emily’s story, and over the course of the film her account is related.
As is made clear, The Exorcism of Emily Rose falls down squarely on the side of the Priest, the spiritual dimension. The trial progresses, as Bruner is plagued by strange noises and smells that occur every night at 3.00 am. Her star witness is a doctor who dies after he too is assailed by demonic forces. Above all is Emily’s tale. A devout girl from a Christian family that lives on a remote farm, Emily wins a scholarship to attend college and is soon after targeted by demons. Attempts to medicate her for diagnosed epilepsy lead to naught but further episodes and declining health. Emily ultimately turns to Father Moore, who agrees to perform the exorcism ceremony and witnesses firsthand the malevolent spirits controlling her. When she passes away, it’s as a consequence of refusing to eat over many months and the failure of the exorcism attempt. She depends on the Father to tell her story, which is what he does during the trial in an effort to prove the existence of angels and demons.
All this leads to some standard ‘exorcism’ scenes, the noble, steadfast preacher confronted with a wailing, thrashing possessed girl, speaking in tongues, sometimes reacting violently, contorting her body into impossible physical positions. It’s impressive to note that much of the latter is down to Jennifer Carpenter’s extraordinary flexibility as a performer, double-joined limb contortions that won her the role in rehearsals and look incredible on the screen. Her increasingly hysterical acting convinces, giving the impression of the girl suffering from untold mental and physical torture. Some special effects work was obviously carried out; no one can bend their spines the way she does in the film, yet much of it just her and it’s very good, and it makes the scenes including CGI that bit less convincing. Fortunately this is kept to a minimum, reserved for jump scares that are mercifully few, the tone on the whole making for an unsettling atmosphere of quietly mounting dread that for the most part works very well.
At the same time, because the film is in favour of its tale of possession, it fails in the end. Wilkinson’s Priest is presented as an infallible man of conscience. There’s little doubt that his character is on the right path, that he hasn’t made a mistake in giving Emily wholly over to a Christian cure, and this imbalances what could have been a clever courtroom drama, leaving audiences questioning the verdict. Because Bruner’s on the side of truth, her opposite number on the bench, Campbell Scott’s prosecution lawyer, becomes more petty minded and at times a bully, attempting to cajole the virtuous Father Moore, completely losing the audience’s sympathies when, in reality, the weight of evidence and the advantage of hard-headed realism would work in his favour. We’d believe in him, rather than see him increasingly as a villain, which is how he ends up being perceived. Multiple perspectives of the same scene show both the terrifying vision from Emily’s perspective and the bemused looks from onlookers as she appears to be suffering from delusions, and this is an angle I would have liked to have seen occur more. As it is, the film leaves us in no doubt of where its sympathies lie, who’s right, whereas you imagine a cleverer work would present both sides rationally and leave it up to us ultimately to make up our minds.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose ends on a semi-optimistic postscript. Bruner turns down the opportunity to take a partnership in her law firm, presumably sickened morally with the work she’s having to do. Father Moore refuses to appeal, his work on this earth done. Ignored is the rather messier epilogue from the real-life Michel case, in which her body was exhumed two years after its burial and found to have shown signs of constant deterioration caused by years suffering from mental illness. Far from attempting to save the girl, the priests exorcising her were indeed guilty of negligence.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose: ***