Ireland is in the midst of its famine, a “Great Hunger” that has made its population increasingly ill, starved and desperate. Kathryn Healy is a widow and a mother trying to survive but is barely hanging on as death and famine rage around her.
When her son Michael is stricken by a fever, she strikes out to find help and food and encounters an English landlord, who himself is wounded and on the verge of death. Though he is her enemy, she takes it upon herself to help him — but it puts on her an unexpected path, strewn with conflict and possible destruction.
Writer-director Vanessa Perdriau’s short historical drama has heft and scale not often found in shorts, with a handsomely realized historical setting as the backdrop to an ambitious, compelling narrative about forgiveness, sacrifice and redemption. Its storytelling canvas is vast in its evocation of Ireland’s gritty past and its social strife between Irish and English, but its emotional acuity and power is precise and finely observed, making for an unusually rich cinematic short that works in both the epic and intimate scales.
The film is classically beautiful in many ways, with a moody, natural palette and an eye for imagery that evokes the great naturalistic and still-life painters of the 1800s, with their epic portrayal of pastoral landscapes. But the camerawork also captures the raw, rough-hewn textures of hard-scrabble poverty in 1800s Ireland that surrounds Kathryn. There’s nothing pretty about her world: it’s dark, hard and unyielding, and full of the potential violence born of poverty and helplessness.
Within this destitute milieu, Kathryn’s strength amidst great struggle stands out. Kathryn has resilience and fortitude — because of her dying child, she simply cannot give up. Actor Charlotte Peters gives a flinty, unsentimental performance as Kathryn, animated with both the hardness of struggle and desperation and a mother’s loyalty and allegiance to her child.
Kathryn struggles against her poverty as well as a great bitterness against the English that have ruled and then abandoned Ireland. But when she encounters a wounded Englishman, she is tempted to leave him to death — but then must choose between a growing inhumanity or her latent compassion. For her son’s sake, she reveals wells of empathy she hasn’t allowed herself to feel in a long time — but also puts her at cross-purposes within her community and in conflict with a neighbor with a much different agenda than hers.
“The Widow’s Last” builds to a climax with a thriller-like momentum, with a pacing and narrative construction that pulls viewers along. The tremendous care and craft that establishes the stakes, characters and world, in the beginning, pays off with an emotional power at the film’s end, in which a character overcomes her hatred to help her so-called enemy. Though here the historical conflict is Irish versus English in 1847, the resonance is contemporary — as is the relevance to our own day and age of examining our blind spots and reaching toward understanding beyond ourselves.