For deep, mysterious reasons probably having something to do with beauty, power, freedom, and fantasy, children love horses. I know I did. We grew up down the street from a stable, and though I mostly avoided the living, breathing, perma-pooping real things, I collected their likenesses in the form of toys and figurines. I owned a great many, some pretty expensive, but my trustiest steed was a cheap, small, brown stuffed-animal pony attached to a key chain. Our relationship wasn’t exactly beautiful or fantastical, but it was powerful and freeing: Whenever someone would come around the house, I’d gallop him over to the top of their head, park him there, and explain that he was going to go potty now. His name, naturally, was Poopy.
No such juvenilia intrudes upon the rather more adult-ish proceedings of the new film The Wanting Mare, in which horses neigh and stamp at the margins of a bleak, majestic world. But insofar as The Wanting Mare is about sad, far-future horse-people dreaming of a happier, more magical past, my recollections of Poopy feel appropriate. Essential, even, to the experience of a work of art that wants its audience to dig up the memories and the lives they’ve buried within the myths of their creation.
The Wanting Mare is the first full-length film of writer-director Nicholas Ashe Bateman, and I’d love to know if he’s a horse boy. Certainly he’s steeped in fantasy lore, for his film is something of a visual veneration of the genre, down to its formal construction. Like any good epic, it begins with some prologue text and an overhead map of the land. We’re high up, looking down through the clouds on a dark, twinkling city. Whithren, it’s called, a land of perpetual, suffocating heat. On its northern shores, the rare horse is known to roam. Everybody wants out, but the only place to go is Levithen, the icy land to the north. Once a year, the Levithenians send a ship down to Whithren to steal horses (for deep, mysterious reasons). They’ll take you back, too, if you can kill the right people for a ticket.
If this sounds like a conventional fantasy, some reverse Game of Thrones where winter isn’t so much coming as going, it’s not. The Wanting Mare is much quieter than that, a little story set in a huge world. Often, it feels like you’re not processing a story at all, merely flipping through the pretty pictures. And maybe reading a caption or two. It’s kind of miraculous, in that way: fantasy as essence, not as explanation.
But a story exists, for those who need one, and by the end, it’s surprisingly coherent and complete. There’s a girl (Jordan Monaghan), and she has a secret. Her matrilineal line carries with it a dream of a world that was, a “world before.” Every night, the women dream this dream, which might be a nightmare, burning them up with regret. You see, Whithren is sick, a postindustrial wasteland of human misery, built on the bones of a better time. Most of the horses are gone.
Then, she meets a boy, and a spark of joy lights the darkness. Bateman cast himself in the part—for budget reasons, he has said—yet he does sensitive, careful work, and he and Monaghan seem to share a real connection. Cue the falling-in-love montage sequence: such a common thing, in movies, but uncommonly lovely here. It should last forever, but it doesn’t. Moira is still tormented by her dream, and she wants to leave this miserable place. Will the boy help her?