Movie Review: “Censor” (2021)

Taking viewers down the rabbit hole and convincing them that up is down, left is right, and back is front is not easy. Keeping folks guessing while still playing fair is no simple task. There is something to be said for any movie that coaxes the audience along with a little bit of carrot and a little bit of stick until everyone is sucked in and unsure of the truth. Directed by Prano Bailey-Bond with a script from Bailey-Bond and Anthony Fletcher, “Censor,” although not a perfect film, manages that most difficult of tasks.

Offering up 1980s England, “Censor” stars Niamh Algar as Enid Baines, a film censor who spends much of her days watching bottom barrel horror films during a VHS tape boom. Over the course of a day she is treated to stabbings and disembowelments and goodness knows what other sorts of horrors. Her job is to make the decision as to whether portions of the film have to be cut (and if so, how much) so that the whole is acceptable for the viewing public. Naturally though, Enid has horrors of her own in life, the mysterious, disappearance of a sister when the two girls were both young. It’s a loss she’s never gotten over and when she watches a movie that echoes some moments of the day in question, she starts to break.

Much of the movie feels methodical, maybe even plodding. To some extent, however, this is where the cleverness Bailey-Bond’s work lies. We descend into madness with Enid at first in recognizable ways and then unrecognizable ones. We think we know what is happening and why and can differentiate between the reality within the film and the breaks within Enid’s mind, but by the time the movie ends, there is a realization that maybe we were wrong, that Bailey-Bond got us.

The whole thing is built in ways big and small. We are treated to a number of low-budget VHS horror effects early. The over-the-top fakeness of it is contrasted to the drab life which Enid lives. We are even given different aspect ratios for “Censor” depending on what we’re seeing. But, there’s an unease to all of it.

We can feel Enid slipping as she mistakes someone for her missing sister, as she is harassed at home and at work following a real world murder that mimics a film she worked on, as her parents have her sister—decades after the disappearance—finally declared dead. Bailey-Bond gives us transition shots that take us from one reality to another, and while we notice that it’s happening on one level, on another, we, too, are slipping.

Algar is excellent at helping the viewer down this road. She takes us by the hand so deftly that sometimes we don’t even realize it. If we didn’t believe in Edith as this buttoned-up censor who has tried so hard to wipe away her past that she seemingly avoids any sort of a personal life because it could dredge up memories she would rather let be, then nothing in the movie would work. She helps convince us that we’re getting glimpses at the truth and can see the bigger picture even when we can’t.

It would be interesting to pull apart the little moments in “Censor” to see just how the film is built, to understand the exact ways in which Bailey-Bond and company get us to jump head first down that rabbit hole. Doing that in a review, however, would seem a cruel trick on an unsuspecting reader who hasn’t yet watched the movie. It’s the fact that the film is deserving of such examination that is notable, as is the fact that having gotten to the end of the movie, I’m curious about what else I would see were I to start it again from the beginning.

I didn’t love everything about “Censor,” but I found it surprising. It feels clever in both ways obvious and not, and I can’t help but think that some of the less clever/more obvious bits are red herrings. It is the sort of movie that is going to have me thinking for weeks. That’s not bad.

photo credit: Magnet Releasing

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