In Kingston High School in New York State, a group of girls formed a sisterhood. They would meet in secret places and membership was by invitation only. Most unacceptable to their peers, they shared a vow of silence, their activities conducted offline and never discussed, not shared on Facebook or Twitter or personal blogs.
It came to a head in the long evenings of October, and as the summer faded so the resentment grew. A petty squabble during an audition for the drama society, Mary Warren (Georgie Henley) formed the Sisterhood with Catherine Huang (Willa Cuthrell) and Lavinia Hall (Olivia DeJonge) and Emily Parris (Kara Hayward) was pointedly not invited.
Unwilling to accept her exclusion, Emily intercepts the next invitation and follows the initiate to her nocturnal rendezvous, and the next day she decries them for a cult: they held her down, they chanted, they cut her hand and drew blood. The Sisterhood remain silent.
The thwarted wannabe actress, Emily escalates, fainting in church where the other girls are present, and the word is spoken: witchcraft. The media pick up the story, creating an atmosphere of “furious accusation and hysterical rumour” with which the girls refuse to engage, adhering to their vow of silence, fiercely loyal to Mary.
A small town where children and teachers are tried and convicted by public opinion, the inspiration of Arthur Miller’s 1953 retelling of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 in The Crucible is confirmed by the names of the characters, Mary Warren the servant accused of witchcraft by the jealous girl who she had replaced, thrown out following an affair with the master of the house, Emily Parris named for the Reverend Samuel Parris who used his position as minister to manipulate his parishioners.
Yet despite the autumn leaves swirling in the air of the blowers and the moon breaking through the clouds as the days count down to the Hallowe’en celebrations where events will come to a head one way or another, the Sisterhood of Night is not what it appears to be.
Heading the hugely talented ensemble of teenagers and adults is Henley as the wilful, enigmatic, impetuous and occasionally destructive Mary, her mesmeric performance a far cry from little Lucy Pevensie of The Chronicles of Narnia.
With Hayward best known as one of the runaway children in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, Mary’s opposite number Emily is demanding, scheming and desperate for the limelight, starting an online support group for victims of abuse but unprepared for the consequences of what she has initiated.
With its European premiere in the Young and the Wild strand of the 2105 Edinburgh International Film Festival, the debut feature of Caryn Waechter from a script by Marilyn Fu based on the short story by Steven Millhauser, this Kickstarter funded project is an examination of the many forms of relationship which women have: friendship, rivalry, overbearing motherhood, absent motherhood, the fear of losing a parent, the fear of losing oneself.
Finding a voice in the silence, The Sisterhood of Night is a unique and important film, superior to both the recently released The Falling and the more overtly supernatural histrionics of The Craft. Whether the young women of Kingston genuinely practice withcraft or not is irrelevant, for they are a spellbinding presence and their magic is healing.