I’ve always associated fenland with land east of Cambridge but here we are in the shadow of the Malverns, their outline of a recumbent body against the sky. Only at the end do we make the summit and the views of fields and villages. Here it is, a place where there is an edge between religion and mysticism which moves when you look at it.
The opening of Penda’s Fen is unsettling enough. It might have something to do with its aesthetic evocative of The Wicker Man or Children of the Stones with a poetic sensibility in a pastoral setting as a burnt limb reaches up to a barbed wire as Elgar’s most profound music reverberates. It doesn’t feel like a children’s film but this is Stephen’s story addressed in a way that respects him. Adults who patronise him are obviously to be dispised, the others are as lost as he is. It’s okay to be lost.
Stephen is growing up, he’s negotiating his beliefs, his position in the social order, his relationship with his family, his sexuality, and there’s so much evolving around him, the world changing, the unexplained intervening, scarily. Maybe they are more scary than the deamon who comes to Stephen, the stone of the church made real. Stephen converses with Elgar, a manifestation of the Malvern Hills, but probably leaves less lost when he actually plays his music, the crack in the church floor opening to the depths and reaching out to him.
It’s a world in which the creatures are fragile and the landscape is what holds power over them. It’s a classic English country landscape in which Malvern doesn’t really feature, never mind the local city-scape of Worcester. When we venture there once it’s other, unpleasant and encroaching with its rupture in ideas, in damage, in potential as productivity. It’s a lost world but one we hold with us still.
Roots go back to an ancient England when there was a chance England could be England. Penda is not Arthur, or even Alfred. He could be Lear or Cymberline except for their baggage, and their own deep flaws contained in their baggage. If there are things about it you don’t feel you’ve grasped, you are in good company; the director is reported as saying “I didn’t know what the fuck was going on with that piece.” Penda can have the authority we seek, and he points Stephen in a determined direction. If there’s something distant and otherworldly about Stephen it can speak to that aspect in all of us and we’re grounded by the fields and the power Elgar felt from having his feet tramp the hills.