“They see your fear”
Director: Ciaran Foy
Cast: Aneurin Barnard, James Cosmo, Wunmi Mosaku
Synopsis: An agoraphobic father teams up with a renegade priest to save his daughter from the clutches of a gang of twisted feral children who committed an act of violence against his family years earlier.
First-time feature director Ciaran Foy’s Citadel was inspired by his own experience of an unprovoked attack by a group of youths when he was 18 which resulted in him suffering a period of agoraphobia which he only overcame upon winning a place at film school. This personal basis for the story, which Foy wrote, is clear from the movie’s graphic depiction of its central figure’s near-debilitating terror of places we take for granted, and serves to create an unusually vivid portrait of how fear makes victims of those caught in its grip.
The movie opens with Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) and his heavily pregnant wife, Joanne (Amy Shiels) leaving their council house flat for the hospital where she is due to give birth. For some reason, Tommy leaves Joanne outside their locked flat while he takes her bags to the taxi waiting eleven floors below. Quite why he couldn’t take her with him or leave her in the flat is a mystery, and results in her death when she is attacked by three kids whose faces are obscured by the hoods of the grubby anoraks they wear. Tommy witnesses the attack through the lift’s tiny window, but is unable to come to her aid because the door jams and then the lift descends to the ground floor, meaning he has to run up eleven flights of stairs to reach her. By the time he does that, Joanne’s attackers have fled, leaving a filthy syringe in her belly. Fortunately, the baby is unharmed, but Joanne lapses into a coma from which she will never recover.
Fast forward several months, and Tommy lives in a rundown house in the middle of a near-deserted housing estate from which most other residents have been moved pending a regeneration project which will see all the old housing torn down. He lives there with his daughter, Elsa (Harry Saunders — let’s hope his mates never find out) and is amongst the last residents to leave because of the agoraphobia that has taken over his life since the attack. But it’s not long before the bulldozers are due to move in, and the estate is removed from the bus company’s schedule, leaving him homeless and stranded if he doesn’t move. It’s also time for Joanne’s life support system to be switched off, a traumatic event that intensifies his sense of isolation and fear. In an alien and seemingly hostile world, the only kindness he receives is from Marie (Wunmi Mosaku), a nurse at Joanne’s hospice who cares enough to attend Joanne’s funeral with Tommy.
The funeral is presided over by a plain-speaking priest (James Cosmo) who is permanently accompanied by a blind boy. The outspoken priest brusquely warns Tommy that ‘they’ will be coming for his daughter, but is drawn no further. Later that night, however, a group of hooded children break into Tommy’s house and trash Elsa’s bedroom. Fortunately, she was with Tommy in the living room when they struck. The following night Tommy hides in the bathroom with his daughter and a hammer for protection, but the only visitor he receives is Marie, who takes him and Elsa back to her place. She also accompanies Tommy as he pays a visit on the priest, who greets him in typically manic fashion before taking him on a short journey to a desolate block of flats. He tells Tommy that this is the home of the feral kids who have been hounding him, and that they are the spawn of two children born to a sick prostitute in the cellar of the building. He exhorts Tommy to help him destroy them, but the younger man is too passive to agree.
That night, however, something happens to change his mind. While being escorted to his new home by Marie, he encounters the hoodies in an underpass. He’s prepared to flee, but Marie indulgently assures him that there’s nothing to fear, that they’re just misunderstood kids who behave the way they do because nobody takes the time to talk to them. Against Tommy’s protests, Marie approaches the hoodies lurking at the far end of the underpass. But these kids are too far gone to respond to friendly conversation and brutally murder the woman. They then pursue Tommy through the deserted night-time streets, finally tracking him down to the top deck of a bus, from where they deliver a beating and steal his child.
While Citadel is horror as a form of catharsis for its writer and director, it’s also a pointed rebuttal of the apologists’ argument about misunderstood kids whose anti-social and illegal behaviour is a result of their deprived upbringing which, when you think about it, is a pretty thoughtless insult to the majority of kids from such backgrounds who never commit crimes but are tarred with the same brush as their mindlessly destructive neighbours nevertheless. And it’s no coincidence that Marie, their representative, meets her grisly fate by doing nothing but trying to reach out to them. These kids are beyond help or redemption, Foy seems to be saying, and given his experience, you can hardly blame him.
While the movie is light on gore, it’s laden with a dark, brooding atmosphere, and creates a recognisable but darkly foreboding world which resembles a cityscape blasted by war or disease. The plot device of having Tommy live on a council estate that has been largely evacuated creates a stark, alien environment while also emphasising his own sense of isolation and fear. It makes for bleak viewing, for sure, but it’s also strangely compelling. The feral, mindless nature of the hoodies is convincingly put across without allowing them to take centre stage — they’re an omnipresent threat, glimpsed only in brief snatches which somehow makes their menace all the more powerful.
Citadel marks a promising debut from Foy, who is clearly a talent worth watching. The film’s conclusion is perhaps a little anti-climactic and the use of CGI for one particular shot is a sad misjudgement, but other than that Citadel more than holds its own in an overstuffed genre.