The Winter Lake – Sheerin’s accomplished thriller lacks time in reaching its full potential

The Winter Lake is available to stream and buy from 15th March

Travel to Loughareema in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, and you are bound to stumble upon the mysterious vanishing lake. A geological fascination that sometimes appears full of water and sometimes appears arid. Ghostly tales, superstition and fear, surrounding its place at the heart of community life; however, its fluctuating level is really due to the underground rivers beneath its surface. Its dark waters sucked into a natural drainage system that refills. It’s easy to see why this rare natural phenomenon has created such fascination and storytelling over the years. After all, any lake that sucks its secrets below is bound to have more than a few dark stories to tell.

With Phil Sheerin’s new film, The Winter Lake, these concepts of submerged secrets find a compelling, engaging, and taut voice. The immersed but never forgotten past of a father and daughter bubbling to the surface of a small vanishing Lake in Southern Ireland. The result, an explosive and dangerous collision of worlds rooted in a slow-burn thriller surrounded by isolation, manipulation and loss.

Tom (Anson Boon) and his mother, Elaine (Charlie Murphy), both hold secrets. Their escape to an old rundown Irish farmhouse owned by Elaine’s grandfather wrapped in unspoken anger and denial; Tom’s behaviour and pent up anger leading to the sudden move from England to Ireland. His days now spent collecting items from the lakeshore, from animal skulls to trinkets. While at the same time, his mum wallows in frustration at her son’s lack of communication.

It is not long before Elaine and Tom meet their neighbours Ward (Michael McElhatton) and his daughter Holly (Emma Mackey). Holly quickly takes Tom under her wing; however, Holly also holds her own dark secrets, with the vanishing lake at there heart. And as events quickly spiral out of control, Tom finds himself caught up in a hidden past that may ultimately destroy his future.

Sheerin creates a bubble of isolation that envelops the audience from the opening scenes; Tom and Elaine’s complex, broken, mother/son relationship taking centre stage. Meanwhile, the bleak winter landscape, howling wind and dark depths of the lake provide a foreboding sense of tragedy to proceedings. The silence of Tom and Elaine’s life, only broken by moments of disagreement and argument. Both trying to build a new sense of security while avoiding the past traumas that brought them to this point. Meanwhile, as Ward and Holly enter the bubble of isolation created, Sheerin enables both mother and son to emerge; Elaine desperate for adult company and security, while Tom slowly opens the gates to a quiet but essential friendship with Holly. Here, performances are strong, especially from Boon and Mackey. Both wrapping coming of age themes of belonging in the trauma of long-suppressed anger and despair.

It is within the haunting discovery at the heart of The Winter Lake that Sheerin’s film engulfs the viewer’s mind and suffers its one major flaw; a runtime that never allows for the themes at play to find the devastating voice they so richly deserve. The films slow-building tension, fear and uncertainty culminating in a finale that feels too thin given the subject at hand. Its themes of manipulation, fear, and lies, never quite reaching the dedicated conclusion they need. However, that does not mean The Winter Lake is a weak film; in fact, it has all the building blocks of an extremely accomplished social and psychological thriller. And given an extra half an hour to flesh out its relationships further, this could have been a truly stunning study of the secrets, emotional closure and manipulation that lie beneath many a family home.

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