A House in Jerusalem – Review

A House in Jerusalem Grief and ghosts often make for good company. It is when we are at our lowest ebb that we often look for answers or signs that we would not normally seek out. And, of course, a presence or a voice of a loved one can be a source of comfort for those who are left behind. It is a concept that has been used effectively in cinema – either for scares or reassurance – in a number of different genres.

Writer / director Muayad Alayan uses this idea somewhat differently in A House in Jerusalem. What starts as a traditional grief storyline becomes a coming-of-age drama set against a wider political context, the timing of which could not be more pertinent. Rebecca (Miley Locke) and her father Michael (Johnny Harris) have moved from the UK to Jerusalem, following the death of their respective mother and wife. It has been a year since her death but, with Rebecca still “acting outside of herself”, Michael believes that a fresh start in his father’s old house will restore her. Lonely and angry, Rebecca begins to see a young girl named Rasha (Sheherazade Farrell), who emerges from a well, dripping wet and waiting for her family to come and get her. But, since no one else can see Rasha, is Rebecca spiralling further into her grief?

What works really well in this film is the two young leads. Miley Locke and Sheherazade Farrell do an excellent job with their characterisation and performances. We can feel tension radiate off Locke as her father leaves her behind to go to work or gives her sleeping pills so he can start dating again. She is an angry kid – and rightfully so – but the tears that constantly prick at her eyes suggest a child who is, ultimately, in need of a warm, empathetic cuddle. Locke delivers those layers throughout without ever veering into precocious territory. Sheherazade Farrell is surely the most adorable ghost you’ll ever see. Huge brown eyes, sweeping eyelashes and a petted lip draw you into her fate immediately. As you piece together her story, you are able to connect the two girls through the trauma of being abandoned. Their dialogue feels plausible and their shared scenes really are some of the best of the film.

This is an interesting film about Palestinian politics in that it feels squarely aimed at younger viewers. The two leads would seem to confirm this. That is not to say that it is ever reductive in its approach to its treatment of the Nakba or, indeed, the ongoing occupation, but it certainly doesn’t ever aim for anything truly hard-hitting. And it is strange that it doesn’t quite ever explore the notion that Rebecca is a “settler” or “invader” (although, for obvious reasons, she has no awareness of this). Instead, it chooses to pair Rebecca and Rasha up as two sides of the one coin, which they clearly cannot and will not ever be. It is also a ghost story that is not too scary, suggesting that it really is leaning toward a younger audience.

House in JerusalemUnfortunately, A House in Jerusalem gets a little muddled along the way. Is it meant to be scary? Because that idea is quickly dispatched with. Is it meant to be a political story? Because suddenly Rebecca is the target of vicious-looking Israeli police officers. Is it meant to be a story about loss? Because someone tell Michael, he cannot understand why his child is still mourning her mother. There are also some gaping plot holes – largely, how could Rebecca get a bus to Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem with no cash and no ID for the numerous checkpoints? – and you can probably work out the final plot twist long before it arrives. It’s a shame because there are some really good ideas in there; they just aren’t fleshed out enough to make the film have the impact that it could. The idea of memory or what it means to be remembered is flirted with but never fully explored and it is one that could truly add nuance to Rasha’s storyline, in particular.

Overall, this is a film that may well engage younger audiences, benefitting as it does from two very strong, watchable leads. But it skims the surface for those who are perhaps looking for a more in-depth approach to Palestinian stories – contemporary and historical – and never quite finds its feet in terms of genre. Whilst it doesn’t overstay its welcome in terms of run time, A House in Jerusalem just can’t quite settle into itself.

A House in Jerusalem is screening at the Glasgow Film Festival.

Mary Munoz
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