A Filipino-British thriller rooted in themes of class, colonialism, immigration, and exploitation.
As SXSW 2023 unfolds, the U.K. is gripped in something of a crisis, as new government efforts to stem immigration are labelled as “heartless.” It’s one thing to deny help to migrants, but another level of cruelty to exploit it. Many stateside who cry for strong action to deal with immigration also bury their heads in the sand about how America was built on the back of immigrant labor and continues to be shouldered by it. Whether it be colonialism or capitalism, the rich and affluent have long exploited hardworking people.
Raging Grace, a debut feature from British-Filipino writer/director Paris Zarcilla, leverages current social commentary on this issue into genre fare. Joy (Max Eigenmann) is an undocumented Filipina immigrant and single mother to her young daughter, Grace (Jaeden Paige Boadilla). Joy works as a housemaid, cleaning fancy homes across London, and living a nomadic lifestyle, moving from one house to another with Grace in alignment with the respective owner’s travel plans. When they have nowhere to stay, they retreat to a storage room in a disused block of flats, a place that also serves as a depository for their few possessions. What Joy earns goes toward a fund to buy a blackmarket visa—her only hope of staying in the U.K. with her British-born daughter.
One day, Joy is offered a lifeline: a live-in position at a country home as housekeeper to the elderly Mr. Garrett (David Hayman), a man being consumed by cancer, who spends his days bed-bound and sedated. His estate and affairs are being managed by his niece Katherine (Leanne Best), whose microaggressions suggest a difficult working environment, but not one Joy hasn’t endured before. Smuggling Grace into the house, Joy gets to work, while her daughter’s exploration and exuberance sets in motion a series of events that uncover a truth behind their hosts and their entwined legacies.
Zarcilla’s debut is an intensely polished and potent affair. Production design takes full advantage of the handsome and haunting surroundings of the stately manor, impeccably brought to life by cinematographer Joel Honeywell. The place feels like a mausoleum, a shrine to past glories and trauma for the new inhabitants as well as the old. Jon Clarke’s brooding score weaves in instruments and and musicians from Filipino culture to superb effect.
The film leverages some familiar genre tropes along with a haunted house backdrop but, aside from a smattering of nightmarish sequences that speak to Joy’s traumatic past, Zarcilla smartly avoids the full embrace of horror. A layered script and measured pace immerse the viewer and drip information. Periodically, title cards appear referencing Rudyard Kipling’s 1899 poem “The White Man’s Burden,” which tells of the West’s duty to “civilise” the Filipino people, a mantra delivering native peoples not the “love” and freedom they are sold, but actually indentured servitude. The legacy of this system is further emboldened and embellished by class structure in the U.K., where the rich create and abuse systems to bring people to heel and keep them firmly underfoot.
Raging Grace brings us full circle, where echos of the past and an upper-class British family threaten to consume another generation of immigrants. Much of the Machiavellian malevolence and racial undertones comes from these aristocrats. Best’s mastery of microaggressions convey her dismissive contempt for Joy, who she feels sufficient dominion over to charge her with the care of an incapacitated family member. An excessive pour of milk into hot tea conveys a world of information about Katherine and how she views Joy. Hayman’s initial portrayal as a genial grandpa is just one aspect of his chameleonic and chilling performance.
Eigenmann brings a depth and tangible sense of dignity to her role, an exhaustion and weariness met with a sense of grit and determination. Her quietly fierce performance is met by the force of nature that is Boadilla as Grace. A vivacious and endearing debut, she represents a chaotic force bouncing around this stately home, a key to opening up its secrets. She’s also an important counter to her mother’s acceptance of the status quo, working within the system that traps her she. Grace is a disruptor, and her rebellious streak offers a chance to break the cycle and salvation for both of them. The pairing is natural, showcasing a sense of warmth and a union between the pair that goes a long way to immersing us in their plight and deeply evoking empathy for them. A human connection to the wider social commentary elevates the impact of Raging Grace as a damnation of the causes of diaspora and a celebration of the resilience of immigrants and their culture.