A pregnant woman washes up on a mysterious, sinister island in Alan Friel’s genre debut


Source: Dublin International Film Festival


Dir/scr: Alan Friel. Ireland/Italy. 2022. 92mins

Alan Friel has gathered some classic thriller ingredients for his debut feature Woken. A windswept, rain-lashed island, a pregnant woman in distress and suspiciously kindly strangers are all present and correct. Speculation about what might be going on is more compelling than the explanation, though, which leads to a disappointingly conventional denouement. Still, there is promise here and genre fans should find enough to sustain their attention.

Genre fans should find enough to sustain their attention.

Friel made his directorial debut with the short Fortune (1996), has directed numerous commercials and further shorts, including Cake (2017) with Maxine Peake, who co-stars here. His first feature begins with dramatic urgency. A distraught Anna (Screen Star of Tomorrow Erin Kellyman from Solo: A Star Wars Story) runs towards a cliff edge, fleeing from an unseen pursuer. There is nowhere to turn and she leaps towards seemingly certain death. She later awakens, however, and is told that she suffered a bad fall but that her baby will be fine.

Unconscious for the past two weeks, she finds herself in a cottage that seems to belong to a bygone era. The wind howls, the roof drips rainwater, the lighting is all flickering candles and paraffin lamps, while a wood-burning stoves warms the chill. There is no sign of a television, a telephone or any means of communicating with the outside world. Anna is apparently surrounded by loved ones but fails to recognise any of them, including her husband James (Ivanno Jeremiah) or the kindly Helen (Peake). All comfy cardigans and concern, Helen seems too good to be taken at face value.

Although the location is never made explicit, filming locations in County Clare and County Limerick provide a suitably rugged, barren backdrop, creating a sense of isolation from the world and an island at the mercy of the elements. Friel manages to invest everyday objects with a sense of the sinister as the hammering of shells during a meal of crab sets Anna’s nerves on edge, a pile of identical hand-knitted yellow baby jackets is unsettling or the sight of strangers on a giant swan-shaped pedalo boat brings the outside world to her doorstep.

Friel keeps the audience guessing with hints of some Rosemary’s Baby-style scenario or even the possibility that any anxiety is in Anna’s mind. There are photo albums and home movies to remind her of happier times and confirm her marriage to James. Yet is clear that something is not right. Is Anna being sheltered or held captive, protected or exploited? Initial explanations reveal something of dire events in the wider world but Anna shows a limited curiosity about what has happened. Is there still a government or any kind of media to report the fate of the planet? We never find out.

Friel manages to sustain the suspense and is helped by a solid cast who sell the premise and walk the line between caring and sinister. Peake makes Helen a sympathetic figure even as we suspect her duplicity, while Kellyman creates a resourceful, vulnerable character that has the audience on her side.

Whispered conversations overheard by Anna, a glimpse of firearms and the growing belief that she may never be allowed to leave the island all fuel her paranoia. Unfortunately, the more the audience learns about what has happened, the less persuasive Woken becomes. Friel tries to compensate by investing more in the stories of Anna and Helen, their torments and sacrifices. It just isn’t enough to balance the tired tropes of a final half hour dominated by meddlesome, misguided scientists, faceless military enforcers and a do-or-die fight for survival. 

Production companies; Fantastic Films, Propaganda Italia, Rocliffe Productions

International sales: Bankside. films@bankside-films.com

Producers: Brendan McCarthy, John McDonnell, Deirdre Levins

Cinematography: Richard Kendrick

Production design: Steve Oakes

Editing: Breege Rowley, Chris Gill, Manuel Grieco

Music: Ratchev + Carratello

Main cast: Erin Kellyman, Maxine Peake, Ivanno Jeremiah, Corrado Invernizzi