An attractively lensed story begins promisingly in Wicker Man territory but disappointingly devolves into a routine mystery.
New York obstetrician Tora Hamilton (Radha Mitchell) is tragically unable to conceive a child of her own. After a series of heartbreaking miscarriages, she decides to travel with her husband, Duncan (Rupert Graves), back to his ancestral home in the Scottish Shetland Islands to start life anew.
There, Duncan’s father, Richard (David Robb), takes charge, setting them up in a new home, arranging for their employment and even facilitating the adoption of a child for them.
Events take a turn for the macabre when Tora unearths a body on their property with ancient symbols carved into its flesh and the heart removed from the chest. The coroner rules it to be a “bog body” — a murder victim from centuries ago that had been preserved for years in the peat. Tora’s medical expertise and inquisitive nature lead her to the realization that the body is no mummy but in fact a recent murder victim, a woman who’d given birth just days before she was killed. Although her suspicions are constantly stymied by authorities, Tora is determined to find out who the woman was, where her baby went, and why her body was disfigured with the strange runes.
She takes into her confidence Officer Dana Tulloch (Joanne Crawford), the only other person who doesn’t scoff at her theories, to uncover the truth behind the killing. Evidence points to an ancient pagan cult, ritual sacrifice and — most horrifying for Tora — her own father-in-law seemingly running the show.
This intriguing set-up places the viewer in promising Wicker Man territory, but unfortunately it doesn’t deliver on that promise. Rather than shedding any light on the townsfolk and their rituals, the story is told from Tora’s perspective and becomes a routine mystery populated with stock characters: suspicious villagers, deceptive public officials and shadowy figures lurking about.
Genre fave Mitchell (Pitch Black, Silent Hill) delivers such a committed performance that it’s a shame that it’s in the service of such a clichéd story. Graves, noted for such films as A Room with a View and Maurice, does the best he can with a part that’s basically a red herring. Robb’s Richard is certainly no Lord Summerisle, becoming a villain of the “nyah-ha-HA!” variety by the film’s ridiculous climax. Only Crawford is given some dimension as the officer who becomes Tora’s partner in the investigation.
Director Peter A. Dowling adapted crime author Sharon Bolton’s pulpy novel for his second directorial effort, and it’s a pity he didn’t choose better material. The film looks and sounds great: the lush Scottish locations, lensed by David Grennan, are gorgeous, and the composer, Benedikt Brydern, does fine work.
Sacrifice opens April 29 at New York’s IFC Center (and on VOD) followed by a May 6 premiere at LA’s Arena Theatre.