With an urge to tell a cinematic story, and ideas reaching into the realm of the fantastic, many debutant directors with small means tend to pick a setting that is deliberately diminutive. This is not the case with The Wanting Mare, the first feature by Nicholas Ashe Bateman, instead aiming for the immense and boundless. On a more than tight budget, Bateman and the team behind this equine fantasy tale have created a sometimes puzzling but always dazzling universe. Wide vistas, distant golden lights, and a prevalent sense of mystery, all contribute to what seems like something out of The Horse and His Boy by C. S. Lewis, even though it was almost entirely shot in a warehouse.
Especially in independent and low-budget science fiction, large environments and scope beyond what is immediately seen and heard are often set aside in favour of intellectually compelling, in the best of worlds even radical, ideas about potential or parallel futures. This approach can be wildly successful, like in The Man from Earth where the premise of a 14,000-year-old man plays out in a single room, or similarly in the modern masterpiece Coherence that deals with many-worlds quantum mechanics during a dinner party. These films work not only because the underlying thoughts are fascinating but due to purposeful tension between the characters and the way their personalities deal with a strange and unexpected reality.
The reality of The Wanting Mare is strange too, but in a more cryptic manner. In the world of Anmaere lies the city of Whithren. Constantly bathed in heat, its citizens lead somewhat spartan lives, dreaming of a rare ticket for the annual transport ship bringing wild horses from Whithren to a mythical winter wonderland across the sea. This cool, greener pasture serves as an emotional backdrop for the few inhabitants we get to know, driving their endeavours and exposing them to risk. Herein lies the tension. The exact motivation for leaving Whithren remains unclear, but it certainly has something to do with the lead Moira and the recurring dream she inherits from a long bloodline of women before her.
The Wanting Mare is not foremost a riddle to solve, its components too ethereal to make out proper puzzle pieces, but a small glimpse into a world of, on one hand, struggle, but also beauty. The kind of beauty novelty brings, that elicits emotion because we have not seen it before. What places the film between fantasy and science fiction is the impression that it might as well transpire on another planet, something akin to what the first visitors to the moons Europa or Ganymede might lay their eyes on. (Except, of course, Anmaere is populated.) This very visual quality is both bold to attempt and notable to succeed at, and far from many indie sci-fi movies of the past couple of decades, that rely almost entirely on dialogue to get across.
Bateman has expressed an interest in making more movies based on Anmaere, to explore what takes place in all the other parts of this singular universe. A kind of ambition that is unusual outside franchise movies and other derivative works that already have a full and rich world to fall back on. Considering what the self-taught filmmakers behind The Wanting Mare have accomplished with such limited financial backing, it can hopefully serve as a polestar for other independent creators of science fiction and fantasy. It is not the size of the budget that ultimately shapes the cinematic experience, but the size of the imagination.
The Wanting Mare had its premiere at the 2020 Chattanooga Film Festival and will be released on VOD in the US on February 5, 2021. Read more about the film and how it was made on the Anmaere Pictures website.