For deep, mysterious for reasons probably related to beauty, power, freedom and fantasy, children love horses. I know I did. We grew up on the streets from a barn, and although I mostly avoided real living, breathable, perma-poo things, I collected their likenesses in toy and figurine form. I owned a lot of them, some quite expensive, but my most loyal horse was a small, inexpensive brown plush pony attached to a keychain. Our relationship wasn’t exactly beautiful or fantastic, but it was powerful and liberating: every time someone came into the house, I would gallop them to the top of their head, park them there and explain to them that he was going to leave pot now. His name, of course, was Poopy.
None of these juveniles interfere with the new film’s slightly more adult proceedings The mare who wants, in which horses neigh and stamp their feet on the margins of a dark and majestic world. But to the extent that The mare who wants is about people of sad and distant horses dreaming of a happier and more magical past, my memories of Poopy strike me as appropriate. Indispensable, even, to the experience of a work of art that wants its audience to unearth the memories and the lives that they have buried in the myths of their creation.
The mare who wants is writer-director Nicholas Ashe Bateman’s debut feature, and I’d like to know if he’s a horse boy. He is certainly imbued fancy tradition, because his film is a kind of visual veneration of the genre, right down to its formal construction. Like any good epic, it begins with a prologue text and an aerial map of the country. We are above, looking through the clouds on a dark, glittering city. Whithren, it is called, a land of perpetual, suffocating heat. On its northern shores, the rare horse is known to roam. Everyone wants to go out, but the only place to go is Levithen, the frozen land to the north. Once a year, the Levithenians send a ship to Whithren to steal horses (for deep and mysterious reasons). They’ll bring you back too, if you can kill the right people for a ticket.
If this sounds like a conventional fantasy, some reverse Game of thrones where winter doesn’t come as long as it goes, it doesn’t. The mare who wants is much quieter than that, a little story set in a huge world. Often times, you feel like you’re not processing a story at all, just flipping through the pretty pictures. And maybe read a caption or two. It’s a little miraculous, that way: fantasy as an essence, not as an explanation.
But there is a story, for those who need it, and in the end, it’s surprisingly cohesive and complete. There is a girl (Jordan Monaghan), and she has a secret. Her matrilineal line carries within her the dream of a world that was, a “world before”. Every night, women dream of this dream, which could be a nightmare, burning them with regret. You see, Whithren is sick, a post-industrial wasteland of human misery, built on the bones of better times. Most of the horses are gone.
Then she meets a boy and a spark of joy lights up the darkness. Bateman threw himself into the role – for budgetary reasons, he said – but he does a sensitive and painstaking job, and he and Monaghan seem to share a real bond. Cue the fall in love cutout: such a common thing, in the movies, but unusually beautiful here. It should go on forever, but it isn’t. Moira is still tormented by her dream, and she wants to leave this miserable place. Will the boy help her?