Fantasy is often thought of as a genre full of magic, supernatural beasts, fey folk and kings. The stories often take place in mystical lands that barely resemble our own. It’s a genre that offers a delightful escape from reality to a far-off place where anything can happen. On film, we most often encounter the epic strain of fantasy storytelling—all heroes and villains and portent. For his debut film, The Wanting Mare, director Nicholas Ashe Bateman chooses a different tack, shrinking genre conventions to tell a smaller, quieter, yet still portentous story of a mysterious dream and the women who are destined to share it.
Set in Anmaere, a complex creation by Bateman himself, the events of The Wanting Mare unfold around Whitheren, a sweltering city that exists in contrast to Levithen, which is eternally cold. Every year, a boat travels from Whitheren to Levithen, transporting Whitheren’s mares to the freezing city. There are limited tickets available to human passengers which are a hot commodity worth killing over. Characters see these tickets as their one way trip to a better life; anything is better than life in the suffocating heat of their city.
Within this world, there is a family of women who share a burden: a dream that is passed down by generations that preserve the memory of the magic that mysteriously disappeared from their world. These women are not hunted for their clandestine knowledge, nor are they messianic heroes the likes of Aragorn from Lord of the Rings or Paul Atreides of Dune. Instead of seeking an explanation for the dream or embracing it, these women are running away from it. They want to flee to Levithen where they can start a new life away from their inheritance and its unknown implications. The “epic” quest of The Wanting Mare is about finding inner peace and their place in Anmaere.
Bateman’s film focuses on two separate chunks of time: the birth and young life of Moira (Jordan Monaghan), the latest woman to inherit the dream, then her life with her grown daughters decades later. The film’s first half is defined by a romantic relationship steeped with a beauty that gets the viewer emotionally invested in the quiet lives of Moira and Lawrence (Nicholas Ashe Bateman), a stranger who comes into her life. Their romance blossoms through quiet touches, long kisses and intimate cinematography. Here, love is not just a climactic and passionate kiss between hero and partner, or a sleekly edited sex scene that can seal the fate of the universe. Sex for these characters is about pleasure, to ease loneliness, to find companionship even briefly. Moira and Lawrence’s relationship evolves slowly and is not predicated on one race versus another. They are two people with baggage, especially as Moira takes care of Lawrence after he’s been shot. The process by which they become closer and closer feels like something out of a dream.
Their romance becomes complicated as Lawrence brings Moira a baby he found on the beach and promptly leaves. It’s abrupt and confusing, with no explanation of who this baby is, where Lawrence is going, and if he’ll ever be back. So Moira is tasked with suddenly being a mother of a child she names Eirah, who may not be as human as she seems. The film’s perspective suddenly switches to an adult Eirah (Yasamin Keshtkar) as she sneaks into the walls of Whithern in search of a ticket. Just like her mother, she wants to escape, but Eirah is doomed to a darker fate than just an inherited dream. She may be something other than human, and she could contain a key to Anmaere’s past. In Eirah’s own journey, the viewer is granted access to the perspective of a woman in this family who doesn’t share this dream. She exists as an outsider in multiple ways, which is reflected through her aimless wanderings through the streets of Whitheren as she searches for something greater.
Running parallel to Eirah’s story is the reunion between a grown Moira (Christine Kellogg-Darrin) and Lawrence (Josh Clark). In crossing paths again after so many years, their romance is revealed as a significant component of the greater story embedded in The Wanting Mare. Despite so many years apart, they both still revel in each other’s bodies in a sex scene that conveys years of sadness, confusion and love. Again, Bateman employs intimate cinematography but here the language of it is bittersweet instead of joyful, as if they are finally getting to say good-bye Their sex punctuates years of questions and resentment. It is the closure Moira needs to finally realize and accept her place within this universe. Eirah’s fate and the reunion with Lawrence grants Moira the perspective and acceptance of her place in this universe, which marks the end of her particular version of the hero’s journey.
Ultimately, The Wanting Mare’s most significant departure from the epic fantasy formula may lie in all the questions it does not answer, in all the context it does not provide. With Anmaere, Bateman simply hints at a rich world not so unlike our own, creating a space for more stories about the lives that exist in this universe. This lack of context doesn’t mean a lack of immersion. The Wanting Mare is ambitious and while it may not provide the answers and context some viewers prefer, its vision of a quieter, romance-laden version of fantasy should be a welcome change of pace for viewers tired of the standard package of fantasy tropes. With luck, more filmmakers will take cues from The Wanting Mare’s thoughtful and intricate interpretation of a well-loved genre.
Mary Beth McAndrews is a freelance film journalist with a love of all things horror. She’s written across the internet about found footage, extreme horror cinema, and more. You can follow her on Twitter to read more of her work, as well as her hot takes about her favorite cryptid, Mothman.