The Isle of Mull has a starring role in The Silent Storm, a new film about the tempestuous marriage between an authoritarian minister and his gentle wife. Damian Lewis is terrifying as overwrought clergyman Balor McNeil, while Andrea Riseborough plays his enigmatic, nature-loving wife Aislin, who finds herself drawn to a fellow outcast – a delinquent, Fionn (Ross Anderson) who comes to live with them. Their island home soon beguiles the newcomer and it’s easy to see why: The Silent Storm’s postwar tale is played out against a dramatic landscape that wraps itself around and shapes every scene.
Damian Lewis in The Silent Storm
Writer/director Corinna McFarlane had never been to the Inner Hebridean island of Mull when she wrote the script. In fact, she only recently became acquainted with Scotland. Her father was orphaned as a boy in the Highlands and left when he was young. Two years ago, he suffered a stroke and Corinna decided it was time she unearthed her roots. “He recovered but I was confronted with the idea of his mortality,” she says. “So I left my flat in London, pretty much sold everything I had, bought and converted an old Land Rover so I could sleep in it and embarked on a mission to discover Scotland.”
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On her travels, she became fascinated by the oppressiveness of the Protestant church in the Western Isles in the early to mid-20th century. “I went to some islands in the Outer Hebrides where the women I spoke to weren’t allowed to go to their husband's or father's funerals because the minister decided it wasn't appropriate. So the women would have to watch from nearby hills – and this is only going back 55 years.”
She also fell head over heels for the majestic terrain and began her first draft of The Silent Storm. McFarlane’s first visit to Mull coincided with what felt like a hurricane. “When I landed, there was a huge storm, with 90mph winds,” she recalls. “The advice was to stay indoors but off I went exploring! I’d done a U-turn because I decided it was too dangerous when this enormous oak tree fell across my path. It was terrifying. I ran out of my car and down the hill and knocked on the first door I came to.”
Seaweed carpets the beach at Carsaig Bay
She couldn’t believe it when she was ushered in. “I stepped in and the house looked exactly like the austere paintings by [Danish painter] Vilhelm Hammershoi that I’d had above my laptop as inspiration when I was writing. I ended up staying there for two days. It turned out that the house used to be an artists’ retreat run by a Royal Academician who had died six months before.”
When she awoke the next morning, the sky had cleared to reveal a breathtaking view of Carsaig Bay. Sparkling sea and sky stretched into the distance as far as the eye could see. “I thought: ‘This is it, I’ve landed, the heavens have shone on me after this year in the wilderness and this big dream of making my first feature drama.' I felt like it was fated."
In spring 2014, McFarlane returned to Carsaig Bay with Lewis, Riseborough and a crew of 70. "We lived in beautiful little places and created a community in the middle of nowhere. The nearest pub was an hour away. It was incredibly beautiful and we had such a good time because that landscape is awe-inspiring – your problems seem to shrink. Andrea says it’s the best film she’s ever worked on.”
As well as the artists' retreat, Inniemore Lodge, she made use of Carsaig Bay’s dilapidated jetty, which also had a cameo in Powell and Pressburger’s 1945 film, I Know Where I’m Going! In The Silent Storm, the favourite coastal cave of the minister’s wife is known locally as the Nuns’ Cave because it is believed the nuns from the neighbouring island of Iona took refuge there during the Scottish Reformation. Only the minister’s kirk was faked (built in a London warehouse and shipped to the location), although actual islanders play the congregation.
Writer/director Corinna McFarlane and Andrea Riseborough on set
The scenery isn’t just a stunning backdrop. “The landscape is intrinsic to the story,” explains McFarlane, “because it’s about the isolation of the characters and the idea of God in nature versus the puritanical, fundamentalist version of God as rules and structure. For me, it had to be on an island because islands have their own rules and a distinct atmosphere. Mull is very lush and otherworldly.”
Like the minister and his wife, the cast and crew were completely cut off from modern conveniences including mobile reception and the internet. They were also at the mercy of the elements. “It is four seasons in a day – it’s wild and the weather is wild.”In the scenes when the bay is bathed in sunshine, the sea is a glorious blue. McFarlane swears there’s been no digital enhancement. “Some days it would be torrential and then it would clear up and the sun would be so hot and we’d all swim after work. The sea is crystal clear. It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth.”
The Silent Storm is in UK cinemas from 20 May
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