“If it’s the nation’s sanity they’re worried about, why don’t they stop slashing social services?” film censor Anne (Clare Perkins) mutters during a meeting on revised standards handed down by the Thatcher administration. It’s a biting line, and that it’s delivered by the film’s only black woman can hardly be an accident. Much of Censor, director Prano Bailey-Bond’s tight, brutal debut feature, is concerned with how Western society explains and confronts — or fails to confront — its own problems after ignoring questions like Anne’s. Where do we locate the sources of our national dysfunction when we’re unwilling to look at their most obvious causes? The answer resides in the lonely, frightened life of uptight conservative censor Enid Baines (Niamh Algar).
Enid, haunted by the unexplained childhood disappearance of her younger sister Nina, treats her job like it’s the Eastern Front, cutting, pruning, and rejecting with such rigid fervor that even the other censors find her overwhelming. Bailey-Bond’s camera captures Enid’s intensity with almost clinical intimacy, focusing for unbearable seconds on end on her nervous tic of picking at her forefinger with the nail of her thumb, lingering on close-ups as she dissociates while watching lurid “video nasties”, as the British press primly dubbed a certain stripe of gorehound horror at the time. She lives immersed in reflections of her own trauma, constantly relitigating her sister’s disappearance through the medium of her profession as though her authority as a censor might somehow undo the fundamental fact that it already happened.
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As a lurid crime with a surface-level connection to a film Enid approved draws savage public attention her way, her fixation on the potential “harm” violent movies might do to English society grows ever stronger. She makes no objection to the vocal harassment campaign directed against her, nor against the sexist abuse she endures in the office when visiting producer Doug Smart (Michael Smiley) does everything but lick her face. She evinces no interest in the dribs and drabs of news on poverty and violence which penetrate the bubble of her life through radio and television. She, and the government underwriting her profession, have manufactured a vision of society in which icky movies — not poverty, not lack of healthcare, not constant war or state violence — are to blame for all society’s woes. If they can only censor enough nasties, repress enough evil imagery, then surely crime and suffering will cease and the Earth order reign.
Bailey-Bond is laser-precise in constructing her characters. By the time Enid’s sanity begins to falter, her nebulous memories of her childhood trauma melding with the films she obsesses over, she feels like a complete and seriously considered person, but one whose self-destruction is inevitable. When it begins the carnage is knuckle-whitening, the delusional conservative violence transparently nothing but a pointless outlet for people incapable of understanding their own suffering, much less the suffering of the world around them. Censor is gorgeously lit and color-corrected, its soft sepia palette spiked here and there with lurid reds and bright, fissile blues, and Bailey-Bond’s camera is astonishingly confident for a first-timer, but it’s the infuriating lack of empathy its protagonist and her ilk have for the pain and struggle of actual existence, their insistence on blaming bogeymen and “freaks” for things they themselves are doing to the world, that really sells it.