Directed by Tom Lee Rutter
Starring Sarah L Page, Lee Mark Jones, James Underwood, Traci Templar and voiced by ‘Tatty’ Dave Jones
Short Film Review by Annie Vincent
Back in 1942, in the grounds of Hagley Hall in the Black Country, four young boys found a skeleton, later discovered to be female, inside a wych elm tree trunk. An investigation was launched to find out who the victim was and how she had met her horrible end, but little concrete conclusions could be drawn. Short film Bella in the Wych Elm by Tom Lee Rutter is a phantasmagoric examination of what was known and how the death impacted on several lives.
The story itself is interesting and this isn’t the first time it has been explored in film. Laced with folklore superstitions, rumours of witchcraft and Nazi espionage, it is perfect film fodder. Here, Rutter has excelled in his filming choices, capturing the story but also that mystical nature of the case through some silent film hallmarks, a yokel story-teller and some frankly disturbing incidental music. The choice to have silent action is quite effective, especially when captured in black and white grain shots, with the odd light flash and the blurry lens framing we associate with old movies. A lack of colour is certainly a great choice in creating a haunting atmosphere on screen. There is some excellent close camera-work, though in places the use of a handheld camera is quite jerky and a little off-putting for viewers. Throughout, folky instrumentals are played which sometimes create a disturbingly upbeat contrast to the reality of the action, but again, this is haunting.
However, as Bella in the Wych Elm progresses the use of some of these techniques begins to wear a little thin. After a particularly good jump scene early on, there is little else to wrack the nerves in this murder mystery and the yokel storyteller becomes so monotone you begin to care less and less about the identity of this woman. It shouldn’t be that way. This film has everything to make it entertaining and memorable, but in being told every minute detail of the case, with nothing left for us to ponder or puzzle out for ourselves, it becomes quite a dull story, despite all the connections to witchcraft and espionage. The film ends by suggesting that the woman and the circumstances surrounding her death remain a mystery, except they don’t really, because there is a lead, corroborated by more than one source, which establishes who she probably was and it sort of feels like a last clutch at keeping the story interesting, when the interest was sucked out a little before.
In premise and in shooting, Bella in the Wych Elm is a great film – who can fail to be charmed by the old silent film style and a juicy local legend? But in script and delivery, something is amiss and audiences may come away less intrigued than they arrived.