Good Madam – Review

Good Madam Glasgow Film Festival The haunted house or family trauma tropes are incredibly common in horror movies. Grief sometimes manifests itself in walls that talk; objects that move; things that go bump in the night. So it can be hard, therefore, to find a fresh approach that will keep you engaged. After all, there are times when you can see, hear and feel the jump scare coming. Writer / director Jenna Cato Bass does use these tropes as a jumping off point for her horror / thriller, Good Madam, but also manages to weave in elements of racial and class divides.

The Cape Town-set film centres around Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa), a young mum who is dealing with the loss of her grandmother. Having spent years caring for her loved one, she suddenly finds herself (and her daughter) homeless, when the extended family do not consent to her remaining in the dead woman’s home. As a result, she is forced to move in with her mother, Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe), who is a “live in domestic” for an elderly white woman. But after just a few days in the house, Tsidi begins to feel disorientated. She is seeing things; hearing things that are making her question her sanity. So, is this grief or is there something more sinister going on?

What is most striking about Good Madam is the sound design. If you’ve never thought that sound alone could give you the chills, this film will change your mind. The film opens with close ups of seemingly inconsequential domestic chores. A scrubbing brush being grazed back and forth on tile floors; a duster skimming intricate lighting; dishes being clattered into sudsy water; clothing being rinsed out by hand. All of these tasks become the soundtrack to the house, with the sound being amplified in such a way that it feels uncanny. The ringing of the “servant’s bell” and the gentle chink of silverware on china teacups really bring in those racial and class elements in a manner that is reminiscent of the hypnosis scene in Jordan Peele’s Get Out. And – whilst this review will remain spoiler free – that’s not the only point of comparison you could make to Peele’s dramatic debut.

There are some quick, flashing jolts that use their brevity to give hints as to how the story will unfold. A close up of Mavis scrubbing the floor mindlessly; a figure at the end of Tsidi’s bed; shots of African and Egyptian artifacts. Jenna Cato Bass uses these sparingly, allowing us the time to piece together our own interpretation of events. It’s nice to watch a horror that doesn’t signpost everything quite so blatantly.

For Tsidi, the situation is clear. As she explains to her young daughter, Winnie (Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya), “It’s not that Mama doesn’t like this house. It’s that this house doesn’t like Mama.” And, it certainly seems that way. She begins to have startling nightmares. There’s some beautiful camerawork where Tsidi stands at the bottom of the stairs, gazing up at the “mistress’s” bedroom. There’s a particularly unsettling scene wherein she brushes her teeth to the point of spewing blood. And whilst there is nothing too graphic on display here – no silly jump scares, no gore – it all contributes to the ominous feeling that pervades the film.

Good Madam Glasgow Film Festival Chumisa Cosa is excellent in the lead role. This seems like a challenging film to get right for an actor, as it requires no histrionics or screaming. Instead, everything she does is very underplayed and subtle. It’s all in a look, a slight movement or a pause. Her performance gives credibility to the plot – it all goes a bit mental in the last twenty minutes or so – and grounds the story in reality. It’s a quiet, tight piece of filmmaking that really benefits from Cosa’s ability to deliver social commentary through caustic remarks or an eye roll. She represents us, as viewers, in her performance – she knows something isn’t quite right but can’t seem to put her finger on what that is.

Good Madam is a creeping slow burn that will really get under your skin. It uses elements of both the horror and thriller genres to highlight racial and class divides, and how these continue to impact different generations of Africans. It’s perhaps not for out-and-out gore fans, but it’s definitely a film that will linger with you, long after you’ve watched it.

Good Madam is screening at the Glasgow Film Festival 2022. Click here to get your tickets.

Mary Munoz
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