This review was previously published in The National newspaper.

Surrealism and sadness are sharply fused in this unconventional British drama from writer-director Tom Geens (Menteur).

We focus on Scottish couple John (Paul Higgins) and Karen (Kate Dickie) who appear to have abandoned a relatively comfortable life for a decisively more feral one in the wilderness of the French Pyrenees. With Karen being the worse off, Paul occasionally ventures out from their “safe” cave to garner food and any medicine that they might need but always returns as quickly as he can while having as little contact with people as possible.

During a brave attempt to emerge from their chosen hole in the woods, Karen is bitten by a poisonous spider which forces John to fetch some real help and connect with the outside world that they have left behind.

This astute portrait of psychological harm, grief and a person’s ability — or lack thereof — to cope with overwhelming mental stress and trauma is a compelling, alluringly peculiar experience, one that does not offer up any easy answers to its many ambiguous questions.

Why exactly are this couple living like this? What could possibly have happened to make two regular people abandon society and, seemingly, all hope? The loaded reason why this isolated situation has arisen is expertly teased throughout the film by second-time director Geens.

He uses the isolated setting amidst a wild surrounding landscape to brilliant effect, simultaneously as a metaphor for the couple’s state of mind and to create a palpable sense of unease and otherworldliness not unlike Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin or Lars von Trier’s Antichrist.

The film would not have worked quite as well had it not been for the two fantastic lead performances. Dickie is deeply impressive as always, bringing a believable sense of primal anguish to the more outwardly unhinged of the couple, while Higgins is heartbreaking as the husband forced to hold their lives and strained marriage together.

Though it threatens to become a tad overwrought in the home stretch, for the most part Couple In A Hole is a film of great power thanks to bold direction and a pair of terrific leads. This couple’s actions may seem less than human at times but their story ends up being deeply humane.