Sarah L Page as the restless spirit in BELLA IN THE WYCH ELM (dir. Tom Lee Rutter)

BELLA IN THE WYCH ELM Review by Jean Stanton

Who put Bella in the Wych Elm? Who indeed?

Bella in the Wych Elm DVD coverSeventy-five years ago, a group of schoolboys trespassing through Hagley Woods, in the heart of the Midlands, made a horrific discovery.

On exploring an old, hollow wych elm, the adventurous teenagers stumbled across something that would begin one of the region’s most enduring mysteries. Deep in the heart of the tree, they found a skull.

Afraid at first to tell anyone what they’d seen, they soon cracked and the police moved in, unearthing a full skeleton, clothing, and – nearby – a ring, shoes and the missing remains of a skeletal hand.

It was determined that they belonged to a woman, about 35 years old, and she’d been there at least 18 months.

Despite extensive searches, the poor woman remained unidentified, and there it might have ended, just another case, lost to the annals of time.

But then, the writing began to appear – on walls, on monuments: “Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?”

A Midlands Phantasmagoria

It’s a Black Country tale, from a region both rural and at the heart of the Industrial Revolution, a place steeped in superstition and stories passed down the generations.

Writer-director Tom Lee Rutter, of Carnie Films, is a local filmmaker and his lovingly told docu-drama, BELLA IN THE WYCH ELM, follows a fine story-telling tradition. More than a documentary, narrator ‘Tatty’ Dave Jones’ warm Black Country brogue is like sitting around the open fire in Grandad’s living room, mug in hand, listening to his stories about the ‘old days’.

Bella In The Wych Elm [OFFICIAL TRAILER 2017] from Tom Lee Rutter on Vimeo.

And stories get embellished along the way. Was Bella a victim of witchcraft? Was she a spy? Or was she just a poor unfortunate in the wrong place at the wrong time? Maybe we will never know for certain, but it’s exactly the air of mystery that so fascinates and weaves its way into the fabric of local lore, remembered almost a century on.

Rutter’s take on the fable is aware of and respectfully acknowledges this, creating his own lyrical addition to the Bella folklore, a ‘phantasmagorical’ tale, shot in moody black-and-white. It’s silent cinema style, both in look and in the wonderfully melodramatic performances, add to the olde worlde feel of the film, the sense of handed-down oral history and traditions. It is enticing, intimate and, despite dripping with nostalgia, somehow timeless.

The story unfolds chronologically, from the discovery of the body, to the forensic investigation and then careful examination of each of the theories, with the re-enactment accompanied by striking imagery – witches dancing, skeletons moving and phantoms floating – and actual shots of newspaper coverage at the time plus other historical documents. Rutter pulls together all of these elements into one tight, deliciously disquieting and strangely beautiful package.

A Twist in the Tale

Lee Mark Jones, Sarah L. Page and James Underwood in BELLA IN THE WYCH ELM (dir. Tom Lee Rutter)

However, like all good stories, this one has a twist: the Bella in the Wych Elm DVD comes with two alternative silent versions of the film, each set to a different but equally evocative soundtrack. The first, by Craigus Barry, is hypnotic, pulsating, sometimes playful and quite industrial. The second, by Deathly Pale Party, is softer, more whimsical, with emphasis on notes (I’m not music expert but I would hazard a guess at a xylophone) richocheting around the images with a gentle but building insistency, beating the film’s rhythm.

Taking away the narration and inserting intertitles has a major effect: it makes you focus on the images and, set to music, they become quite remarkable.

James Underwood as Jack – a local man who may or may not have had a hand in Bella’s death but who certainly suffered a breakdown not long after her disappearance and died insane in an asylum – is exceptionally good as the troubled man. His dream sequences in which Bella haunts him – her deathly white face, with its huge, staring shadowed-eyes, emerging from the tree – is beautiful and terrible at once. Sarah L. Page demonstrates great versatility, convincing as both this waif-like apparition and the fun-loving female spy who sparks one argument too many.

I was reliably informed that Bella in the Wych-Elm is a lot like Wisconsin Death Trip in style and, on viewing said film, I would have to agree. Both relay an odd tale, anchored to a time and place, narrated with a docu-drama format interspersed with real-life photos and documents, but Bella is more poetical, a true piece of dark art that also puts me in mind of the work of Canadian auteur, Guy Maddin (The Saddest Music in the World, Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary), and that’s the highest recommendation I can give.

Full credit to Rutter for giving us not one, not two, but THREE versions that work, each differently and independently, and I urge you to watch all of them.

Dir. Tom Lee Rutter, UK, 2017, 36 mins, cert. 12

Cast: ‘Tatty’ Dave Jones (narrator), Barry Anscomb-Moon, Peter Grail, Jim Heal, Lee Mark Jones, Sarah L. Page, James Underwood, James Taylor, Traci Templar

 

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BELLA IN THE WYCH ELM is screening as part of the 75th Anniversary Evening at Stourbridge Town Hall on 21st April, and as part of the Sunday shorts programme at the Paracinema Weekend at Derby QUAD on 6th May.

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