Closing the opening night of Dead by Dawn, from South Africa came The Lullaby, directed by Darrell Roodt from a script by Tarryn-Tanille Prinsloo. Named Siembamba in its native country, a traditional Afrikaans song of child murder performed over the closing credits, that grim subject is reflected throughout the film.
After a difficult birth after which she rejected her baby, young mother Chloe van Heerden (Detour‘s Reine Swart) and has returned to her family home in Eden Rock to stay with her mother Ruby (Thandi Puren) so she can keep an eye on them, but their relationship is distant, soured by years of argument and resentment between them.
Ruby unforgiving even in the change of circumstances, she expects her daughter to abide by her will and defer to the wisdom of her experience which expresses itself largely in criticism. “You’re too quick to pick him up,” she says when Chloe responds to Liam crying. “Motherhood is hard, Chloe. The sooner you recognise that the better.”
In the house full of dolls and antique music boxes, Chloe struggles and little help or company is at hand, refusing to confirm the identity of Liam’s father, cold towards the advances of her ex-boyfriend Adam (Deànré Reiners) and suffering from waking nightmares exacerbated by her insomnia, visions of a hurting herself, of hurting Liam, of a frightful form in the house with her.
With a misty pallor perpetually pushing down from the mountain and into the house, with her lank hair Chloe is not a sympathetic character, her expression rarely other than fearful, but with any attempt at atmosphere shattered by the constant amateur jump scares that dread is never transferred to the audience.
As a metaphor for psychological trauma and post-natal depression, had The Lullaby been directed by a woman it might have had more empathy and warmth, but in Roodt’s hands it varies between functional and exploitive and while Puren gives a powerful performance and Swart is suitably anxious Prinsloo’s script singularly fails to offer depth to any of her characters.
The sounding board for Ruby’s concerns her psychologist Doctor Timothy Reed (Brandon Auret of Elysium and Chappie), a physically imposing figure surrounded by his collection of mounted butterflies who pushes his patients uncomfortably and inappropriately, while he exudes creepiness he is a heavy handed presence in a film which would benefit from nuance.
Lacking the elegance of Rosemary’s Baby, the power of The Badabook, the contrasts of Firstborn or the menace of Under the Shadow, with only a single scene offering a glimmer of light there is no contrast to the pervasive misery as Chloe sleepwalks aimlessly in hopes of discovering a plot, the melody of The Lullaby fails to give birth to a satisfying or coherent whole.