Censor – Review

“Though it might feel slighter than its best moments promise, this is still a disturbing, inventive, and engaging film.”

by Ken Bakely

There’s a deliberately imprecise feel to Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor, as if the movie is prepared to fold in on itself at any moment, drifting through a collage of sequences and imagery that feel like pieces of a sharp-edged puzzle, strangely cut and jagged. It’s a disorienting journey, plunging through the increasingly disheveled psyche of its main character. Enid (Niamh Algar) is a British film censor in the mid-1980s, the height of the “video nasties” era, in which a moral panic over graphic violence in film led to a tightly-wound response from authorities, leading Enid and her colleagues to dutifully edit or outright reject submissions that might be seen to push the envelope, or risk becoming a scapegoat when the tabloid press blames real-life crimes on violent media. It’s not the best work, but it takes a turn for the harrowing when Enid screens a film that seems to evoke images straight out of her childhood, eerily matching the series of events that preceded her sister’s unsolved disappearance. This, exacerbated by the ongoing stresses of her life (a film approved by Enid has been conflated with the facts of a heinous crime in the news, causing her to come under significant public anguish), comes to consume her entirely, leading her on a surreal and single-minded path to track down the film’s sleazy producer and mysterious director, as she believes – with increasing conviction, and increasingly grim results – that they harbor the answers behind one of the deepest traumas of her life.

Censor is at its best when introducing us to its setting and approach. It takes the incentive to fully navigate Enid’s increasingly cloudy mind and the worldview she produces. Critically, Bailey-Bond takes an approach that’s surprisingly low-key for all the movie promises: she exchanges big, overt proclamations on the parallels between the horrors of Enid’s life and those she sees in her work for something more enticing and untethered altogether, carefully snaking the plot through a shrouded network of developments. It’s not about piecing together formal answers or resolutions that even make all that much sense. Instead, Bailey-Bond creates a claustrophobic, encompassing experience, one that’s roundly successful in establishing mood and tone – accompanied by Annika Summerson’s foggy cinematography and Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s disquieting score – but perhaps less so in connecting us from the film’s more minimalist roots to the bigger devices that it turns to as it rapidly shifts gears towards its finale. It’s then when the movie feels caught between its approaches, with its slim, 84-minute runtime struggling to sustain the third act’s developments and give it the same heft of what’s come before. 

The dissonance becomes stark when reconciling the notion that the film’s uncertain feel, which is performed to such great effect in engineering its setting and tone, can’t help the movie from feeling somewhat unresolved in the whole. The script seems to call out for a more comprehensive or detailed look at its themes and ideas than the execution can deliver. Still, Censor’s successes are just as directly a result of the clear talent on display in front of and behind the camera, and the movie never feels truly directionless or unanchored. As Enid, Algar delivers an endlessly fascinating performance, incorporating a myriad of ostensibly conflicting or separate conditions. From the thickly rooted, painfully palpable grounds of the character’s traumatic past, there is a slow-building anxiety – over possibilities real, implied, or perceived – that eventually give way to the character’s stunning loss of reality in the film’s climactic moments. We live inside the character’s mind, and whatever issues the movie might have in structuring this path, none could be attributed to Algar’s performance. Indeed, Censor is so smartly imagined, and so often unafraid to discover the limits of its possibilities, that I never felt like it was holding something back. Though it might feel slighter than its best moments promise, this is still a disturbing, inventive, and engaging film. As Bailey-Bond’s directorial debut, it represents an unnerving exploration through the film’s aesthetic boundaries and character development, with many truly jolting and impressively mounted moments throughout.