“Strange country,” uttered Bol Majur (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù) a beat after he was scared to breathlessness. This will be the only note of humor during his entire stay in the house.
“The house” is a reference to the depressing — not to mention absolutely haunted — dwelling at the heart of writer-director Remi Weekes’ first feature, which hopefully is an original creation from production designer Jacqueline Abrahams and not an actual address in London. But it could have been one, for as Grenfell Tower had shown adequate housing for disadvantaged populations is a non-priority among Britain’s upper echelons. But they hold the power to place people, so there’s the rub. In His House, former bank worker Bol and his educated wife Rial (Wunmi Mosaku), being Dinka refugees from war-torn South Sudan, are assigned an abode that they are expected to accept and to be grateful of, otherwise it’s re-detention and eventual deportation if the case workers see any sign they consider to be a violation. Even before the first supernatural happening, the story (from Felicity Evans and Tony Venables), the writing (from Weekes) and the editing (from Julia Bloch), through potent brevity, attach the Majurs with the main and ever-current horrors awaiting folks seeking a future abroad — condescensions, insinuations and restrictions. “It’s not me that needs convincing.”
Well, if not you, who?
For a while, they leave the answering of it aside for the greater good. Bol, uber-committed to making this new life work, is focused enough to not detect a White mall guard trailing him when he is browsing new clothes. Rial, who is still grieving her daughter Nyagak (Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba)’s death after their escape boat capsized but not wanting to disappoint her love, omits to share a racist encounter with three Black schoolboys whom she initially thought can give her directions. Both, however, are in most danger at home, not because the indifferent case worker Mark (Matt Smith, fleeting) is going all Norman Bates on them but rather an apeth (“witch” in Dinka) is currently hiding in the shadows. It strikes often — as a voice (Cornell S. John), as itself (Javier Botet) or as visions of Nyagak — and when it does prepare to be frozen as Weekes, d.p. Jo Willems and composer Roque Baños are so consistent in cueing incredible buildups from the most efficient of creative choices. Perhaps the only downside here is that Weekes exposes Bol to more scares, quantity and quality-wise, than Rial, which in turn gives Bol decidedly more engagement with His House’s narrative and genre devices. A particular “Nyagak calling out to mama” sequence with Bol manages to coil my insides and have the brain register that sensation.
Although Dìrísù and Mosaku turn in equally great externally understated-yet-psychologically revealing performance, it’s the latter who leaves a deeper impression. Mosaku’s Rial might not be the story’s focus, yet she is closer to His House’s core, or the reality-horror that the cinema-horror is commenting on. In no way devaluing the brilliant scares, and apologies for the vagueness to protect a major plot point, the images I keep reliving are in a heartbreaking flashback that answers why Rial is the wiser navigator of the new world than Bol. There is something in the corner of the classroom that freezes and shatters her — Mosaku expresses all this — but only at the scene’s end does the camera perform the reveal. Everything from this point on will succeed in reminding folks that “successful immigrant” stories — dare I say, all of them — have painful roots that would never be addressed in full so they’re more pleasant to consume, popularize and, when convenient, weaponize. The contrast in Rial and Bol’s worldviews is sobering to see despite having little subtlety, denoting an oft-buried fact that the outsider experience, especially when the outsider is underprivileged, is an eternal closeness to the tug-of-war between looking back where past pains may get reanimated and going forward where access is granted by stooping low (Side note: Human-rights organizations Waging Peace and Right to Remain each receives a “special thanks” credit in the film, and it’s a salve after reading the exposé on 2020 Mulan’s filming location).
It may arrive early or right before the close, but the genius behind the title will always surface. Who is the ‘he’ possessing the house? Bol? The apeth? The lawmakers? It’s all well to not have a definite answer; it might have been Weekes and company’s design in the brilliantly scary and compassionate His House all along. “Strange country,” Bol said. More like strange people in the country, reality corrected, if going by current stories like this and like this about the ones with the power to humanely place you.