Savage Woman: Interview With Pollyanna McIntosh

Released earlier this year, Lucky McKee’s THE WOMAN is about as intense as cinema gets. Through a combination of slick and considered visuals, an overpowering soundtrack, challenging themes, and gripping performances, it is perhaps 2011’s most gripping and unsettling film.

The key to THE WOMAN is its intelligent approach to the difficult issues it sets out to explore. There are no vulgar and gratuitous shock tactics here; this is explicit cinema at its cerebral best.

The crux of THE WOMAN is the titular character herself, played by British actress Pollyanna McIntosh, who THN was fortunate enough to have caught up with recently. Staggeringly beautiful and with acting talent to match, Pollyanna’s performance is captivating: her use of body language and clear submersion into the role is sure to set her on the path to an intriguing career.

THE WOMAN – adapted from the Jack Ketchum novel of the same name – follows Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers), a successful country lawyer with a seemingly idealistic family. Whilst hunting one day, Cleek discovers a feral woman, whom he promptly captures and keeps captive in his cellar. Intending to civilize ‘the woman’, Cleek enrolls the help of his family – wife, son and two daughters. But he soon proves to be less than civilised himself, and his abusive treatment of his prisoner becomes a dangerous game, only serving to antagonize her lethal survival instincts.

The film’s depictions of abuse and its dissection of man-woman relations does not make for comfortable viewing. By the time THE WOMAN arrived on cinema screens it was already notorious for having greatly upset one viewer during its debut at Sundance. His emotional and agitated response to the screening has become the stuff of YouTube legend, with him describing it, amongst other things, as ‘degradation to women’.

‘That guy’s entitled to his opinion,’ says Pollyanna, ‘but I think his frustration at our world, the truth the film discusses, is what he was truly mad at. It hits a nerve with people, that’s for sure.’

Negative responses to such challenging content are to be expected, and anyone involved in such a project would undoubtedly be aware of this. But the film has also had its share of positive feedback, particularly for its empowering construction of femininity, which may come as something of surprise considering the violence suffered by its female characters.

‘Lucky McKee says he doesn’t do politics in his movies,’ Pollyanna tells THN, ‘but to me he has made a feminist-leaning film precisely by being someone who judges women on the same level as men as he’s man enough to relate to them. I heard a wonderful quote from a reviewer’s girlfriend the other day. She really dug the film as a cinephile, as a horror fan and as a woman. She said, “You know one of the great things this film does is reminds us there’s still a need to defend feminism.” I think that says it for me.’

The representations of the film’s female characters mark some of the most unique in cinema to date; in fact, it’s difficult to ascertain whether the title, THE WOMAN, refers to just Pollyanna’s character, or all womankind. Writers McKee and Ketchum have built a narrative that features varying levels of femininity: Cleeks’s wife Belle, the submissive wife and mother, bound to her domestic environment and overpowered by her husband; the eldest daughter, Peg, sexually mature but terrified by the men in her life; youngest daughter, Darlin’, who is sugar, spice, and all things nice; and ‘the woman’ herself, a savage and powerful creature who cannot be tamed by man.

Playing such a character, of course, involves a great deal of preparation, something Pollyanna was sure to undertake leading up to the shoot.

Pollyanna says, ‘I worked out like crazy so I became very strong and grew all my hair out…everywhere. I headed out into the woods for a few days feeling out my “uncivilized” body and how it is to have a territory of your own, alone.’

Sean Bridgers as Chris Cleek in The Woman

But the role ensured mental preparation as well as physical, which Pollyanna approached with equal measure. In addition to studying big cats, wolves, apes, and feral children, she used Karen Armstrong’s book ‘A Short History of Myth’ that explains how we have created stories to improve our lives.

‘It was really helpful for the character’s inner thoughts,’ she tells THN,’ thoughts of what she was missing whilst being trapped in that cellar – the sacred hunt.  It also helped inform my judgment of the Cleeks for the way they went about their lives.’

All of which makes for an extremely intense character, and quite unlike anything else seen in cinemas this year. In fact, the character is so immersive, one would be forgiven for assuming it difficult to disconnect from after a day’s shooting.

‘It’s funny as you’d think it’d be hard,’ says Pollyanna, ‘she’s going through so much you’d think I’d be a bit low during filming, but her animal grace under pressure, her survivor’s instinct, her absolute lack of regard for other’s opinion of her, unless it serves her, all meant I felt confident and calm outside of filming.’

By this point Pollyanna should have been reasonably comfortable in the character’s skin as she had previously played the role in Andrew van den Houten’s OFFSPRING, also adapted from a Jack Ketchum novel, and featuring the cannibal clan to which the woman belongs.

These challenging performances are all in a day’s work for Pollyanna however; this year she has also played two drug addicts and two mothers grieving for the loss of their children. And she considers that such provocative material is crucial for the integrity of cinema as an art form, and that such films offer something that mainstream movies don’t.

‘Any film going through the mainstream channels must undergo several screenings with test audiences to see what people like and don’t like,’ she tells THN. ‘The changes made after such screenings can sap a film of its original vitality.  Removing the risk of offending or challenging an audience is not the way to tell stories that have lasting relevance.  We all want to feel understood, less alone, more hopeful and cinema can provide this for us in magic ways. Personally I often feel that more keenly with independent film, the artist’s voice is generally clearer.’

Following this powerful performance, the future is extremely bright for Pollyanna, who has proved herself as a talented and fearless actress, with the integrity to invest in films that fall outside the perimeters of mainstream culture.

Next up is a feature called I DO, which is about the effect of DOMA, and following that, PREVERTERE by writer-director Brian McGuire. For now, however, ensure you track down THE WOMAN, providing you are up to the challenge. She is, after all, savage.

THE WOMAN is available on DVD now.

Tom Fordy is a writer and journalist from Bristol. He is a regular contributor to The Hollywood News, Loaded, and Zip magazine, where he puts his years of movie addiciton to bloody good use. He is also the founder and sole reader of adult humour blog FilmC*nt. Tom Fordy now lives in East London with his partner, son, and massive collection of pointless crap. He plans to eat himself to death very soon.

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