Screenwriter Laura Turner and director Philip Stevens are making their feature-film debuts with this intriguing, slightly stylised and quasi-theatrical piece: stark, oppressive, menacing, a historical drama with a slice of horror. It is set in 16th-century England on the remote Lincolnshire coast, a time when the Egyptian Act of 1554 effectively criminalised Romani and Gypsy people and those who harboured them.
Stevens resourcefully uses the blank canvases of wild, empty coastline and forest to avoid the need for much specific period detail. David (played by Emmett J Scanlan from TV’s Peaky Blinders) is the aggressive bully who leads a small community of people farming salt from the marshes; he has made a deal with a Romani called Arif (Javed Khan) to get a boat to take him and his family away from England, taking half the payment up front and resentfully allowing Arif and the other Romani to camp nearby until the promised boat arrives. But David is getting ready to cheat the Romani and is all too ready to cheat his fellow farmers, too.
Things are complicated further by David’s sister-in-law Patience (Hannah Douglas), a woman who is aphonic and whose gentle, inchoate, bird-like cries earn her the nickname “Lapwing”; she falls in love with one of the Romani, Rumi (Sebastian De Souza), which triggers a spasm of suspicious rage in David, in which his xenophobia and hatred of women fuse into a single paranoid meltdown. David and his relationship with his community are in fact slightly more central to the movie than you might expect from the premise and perhaps the film could have dramatised Rumi’s existence and inner life more than it does, but this is confident, distinctive work.
• Lapwing is released on 26 November in cinemas and on digital platforms.