Not Your Hollywood Kind of Magic (A Film Review of A DARK SONG)
I have never in my life seen a movie that accurately captures a true depiction of ceremonial magic . . . then came along A DARK SONG.
Written and directed by Liam Gavin, this entry marks the first full-length feature film by the Irish storyboard artist. Noting Gavin’s previous experience of story-boarding is essential, as his previous short films JERICHO and SUNSHOWER will attest. The visual acuity of this movie is stunning, to say the least. From the very first shot—a striking panorama of the Welsh countryside, ominous dark clouds painted across the sky—it is near-impossible to not be enraptured by the world Gavin has constructed. One immediately gets the sense that this film is crafted; we are in for a ride that has been well thought-out and executed.
The story follows Sophia (played by Catherine Walker) who contracts the services of an occult expert named Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram) to implement the Abramelin Operation, a magical ceremony to attain knowledge and conversation with one’s Holy Guardian Angel (HGA). This is a real life ceremony found in The Book of Abramelin, an occult text with an obscure origin dating back to the14th Century and was translated in 1897 from French into English by S.L. MacGregor Mathers, the head of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The late 19th and early 20th Century held witness to a sort-of magical Renaissance and The Book of Abramelin has since then been one of the quintessential tomes of occultism.
The Abramelin Operation is without a doubt the pentacle of magical achievement. I myself dream of being able to have the time and resources to implement the working. It is the very essence of the magnum opus, the Great Work. Achieving actual contact and conversation of one's Holy Guardian Angel is the goal in the life of every practicing magician or mystic. The purpose behind such a feat is echoed by Solomon in the film— “to know” —but the shifty motivations of the characters themselves become the drive that eloquently threads the narrative of this story together.
Gavin is no stranger to the material. The first indication of his erudite understanding of the occult arts is in the selection of the character’s names. The main character, Sophia, takes her name from the Greek word for “wisdom,” a revered concept in Gnosticism for representing the feminine quality of God and the physical expression of the world-soul. On the other hand, the occult expert's name, Solomon, is an admired figure in occultism for producing the intellectual backbone of ceremonial magic in The Key of Solomon the King (Clavicula Salominus) and The Lesser Key of Solomon (known as the Goetia).
The delivery of the ritual present in the film resembles the experience of magic in the real world. Magic requires focus, patience, and its results are subtle and illusory. Magic is the art of negotiating with that which is unseen, and we watch and intimately feel Sophia’s struggle with the Operation. The Abramelin Operation is a long, arduous process which requires fasting, repetitive rituals and prayers, as well as prolonged isolation from the outside world. It is a months-long journey that often begs an insane amount of work for very little result. However, as testimony suggests, when the Abramelin Operation is done successfully, the boundaries of reality begin to breakdown and the different worlds of the celestial and infernal begin to converge. When the walls of what is known begin to crumble, Sophia and Solomon's psyches follow along with it. Walker and Oram’s portrayals replicate Gavin’s magical formula: intense yet subtle, ultimately . . . engrossing!
There are only a couple of items of consideration I would note as possible fall-backs, one of which doesn’t even concern the film itself.
The first consideration is that the film seems to be marketed as horror movie. This may be intentional in an attempt to throw viewers off (or, maybe it IS a horror movie and I just didn’t get it). If it isn’t then someone dropped the ball from production to marketing. It seems to me this film is in the caliber of Jodorowsky’s esoteric cinema, a walloping mindfuck of mystical proportions more in line with the artist-as-spell-caster rather than producing cheap entertainment. This is not a popcorn movie; it is an intellectual masterpiece that should be studied, discussed, and rewatched to unveil its intrinsic depth and mystery.
And that leads me to my second consideration . . . I am not sure that anyone who isn’t already familiar with the occult and Abramelin would get it. If new to the material, it may take a while to even understand what is happening because there is no exposition delivered to the audience on a silver platter. This is why I love the film, though. You have to work for it. It is high art, because the writer-director expects a little bit of effort out of the audience. Explanation will come, but you have to (like Sophia) be patient and endure the rituals and trials of initiation in order to attain it.
It could have been so easy for most filmmakers to ruin the end of this story, but Gavin avoided disaster. In fact, he excelled! I was both surprised and touched. It’s been a while since I teared up for movie, but this did it for me . . . probably because of the story’s theme reflecting my own journey, which is part of the synchronistic magic of this film: it is a delicately woven spell. Ray Harman’s sonorous score was an integral part of that web, ensnaring us along with the visual intelligence of Cathal Watters’ cinematography. A DARK SONG was an effort of heart, not a corporate line item, and the final product is a testament to this herculean achievement.
Despite the considerations above, I still rate this as an excellent film which has topped my list of favorites, hands down. I will be looking forward to more from Liam Gavin in the future. My final rating for this film is: