- Emma Simmonds
- 29 March 2021
Janelle Monáe stars in a hugely promising but sadly underdeveloped horror
The most heinous of real-life horrors, slavery, gets the genre film treatment in the feature debut of writer-directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz. Heavily sold on its association with the masterful Get Out (with which it shares a producer), although Antebellum boasts a similarly striking concept and a comparably eye-catching lead, in Janelle Monáe, it's nowhere near as satirically sharp or well-realised, and ultimately ends up resembling a M. Night Shyamalan movie.
The film begins on a brutal Louisiana plantation which has been commandeered by Confederate soldiers, who do not even allow the slaves to speak without permission. Monáe plays Eden, a slave who has recently tried to escape the clutches of the general who oversees the operation (Eric Lange), and has been branded as punishment. Jack Huston is a merciless captain who we see murdering a woman at the outset, while Jena Malone plays the cruel lady of the house, Elizabeth. Then Eden wakes from this nightmare to find herself back in her real world – a world in which she's a wildly successful academic, writer and TV pundit named Veronica, whose latest book calls for Black Americans to choose 'liberation over assimilation'.
The basic premise is undoubtedly an interesting one, as Bush and Renz attempt to get to grips with the shadow that slavery has cast over the United States and the lingering hatred directed at Black communities, whilst playing on fears of no longer being free. Perhaps because it moves between two worlds, neither feels properly fleshed out, and the film fails to connect with what should be hugely emotive subject matter. Moreover, it doesn't make enough of the contrast between Veronica's rebellious, righteously angry words and her privileged, seemingly hypocritical lifestyle, another area ripe for exploration.
Monáe brings some subtlety to what can sometimes be quite a crude execution (the villains tend toward the moustache-twirling and there are some distracting stylistic interludes, including a slightly excruciating use of slow-mo), and she is convincingly fearful too, but there's something dreamy and ethereal about her performance, when the film is crying out for a bit of grounding. Antebellum is not a total disaster, there's some provocative stuff here, yet the worldbuilding is weak and tension and atmosphere is lacking, meaning it never really plunges you into the thick of Veronica's plight. Given its potential and the meatiness of the material, it feels particularly sad to chalk this one up as a missed opportunity.
Available to watch on Sky Cinema from Fri 2 Apr.