Reverend Merrily Watkins (Anna Maxwell Martin) is a relative newcomer to the village, moving here with her teenage daughter after her husband was killed in a car accident. Her Bishop (Nicholas Pinnock) recruits Merrily to become the local Exorcist/Deliverance expert, and Merrily’s Deliverance teacher Huw Owen (David Threlfall) is quick to warn her that if she has any kind of emotional weakness she will be in terrible danger; the demons will be sure to find the chink in her armour and exploit it.
Merrily doesn’t have time to worry about that. Soon she’s helping the Police investigate a particularly nasty murder - a man found crucified in the woods - and she’s barely recovered from that grisly experience before she’s summoned to the hospital to deliver the last rites to Denzil Joy (Oengus MacNamara), an old man who has been associated with satanic child abuse. Joy is the epitome of evil, and after holding the dying man’s hand and praying for his soul Merrily feels Joy’s spirit attach itself to hers. Before she knows it she is pitched into an occult battle that will not only shake Merrily’s beliefs to their very foundations, it will attack her where she’s weakest: her relationship with her already estranged daughter (Sally Messham).
Midwinter of the Spirit, adapted from Phil Rickman’s 1999 novel of the same name, is Merrily Watkins’ first appearance on our screens but hopefully not her last. Although the novel was number 2 in Rickman’s phenomenally successful Merrily Watkins series (Rickman is soon to release number 13!) this story was the perfect choice to introduce Merrily to a television audience. It’s a beautiful and eerie introduction to the character.
Much of the credit for that goes to Stephen Volk, one of Britain’s finest screenwriters who already has a host of paranormal-related TV shows and films on his resume including The Awakening (2012), Ken Russell’s Gothic (1986), the TV series Afterlife, and the cult favourite Ghostwatch. There really wasn’t a better choice to bring Merrily to the screen. Volk’s writing is superb and considering the three episodes of Midwinter barely fill two and a half hours and yet the book itself runs to more than 500 pages, he has managed to stay incredibly close to the novel and the flavour of Rickman’s writing while still injecting some of his own trademark creepiness. It is a masterclass in adaptation.
Anna Maxwell Martin is outstanding as Merrily, taking a well-loved literary character and entirely making it her own. We’d bet that even people who are familiar with the books and have had their own vision of Merrily inside their imaginations for many years will have replaced it with Maxwell Martin’s interpretation by now. David Threlfall, as Huw Owen, makes a great foil to her, imbuing his character with a tired strength and a lot of very subtle humour. Sally Messham also gives a terrific performance as Merrily’s emotionally damaged daughter Jane. In fact, the entire production is flawless, and the camerawork, especially of the Hereford countryside, often looks spectacularly beautiful as well.
Midwinter of the Spirit could easily have been watered down by TV producers into a U certificate version of The Exorcist-meets-Inspector Morse. The fact it avoids that trap and genuinely has moments which creep us out, as well as telling an occult-based story in an intelligent and human way, is reason to celebrate. If you missed Midwinter on TV, don’t miss this DVD. If you saw Midwinter on TV, pick up this DVD and watch it again. Even on second viewing, you’ll notice a lot you missed the first time around.
MIDWINTER OF THE SPIRIT: SERIES ONE / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: RICHARD CLARK / SCREENPLAY: STEPHEN VOLK, PHIL RICKMAN / STARRING: ANNA MAXWELL MARTIN, DAVID THRELFALL, NICHOLAS PINNOCK, WILL ATTENBOROUGH, SALLY MESSHAM, KATE DICKIE / RELEASE DATE: NOVEMBER 2ND