Film Reviews

You Won’t Be Alone

Published September 22, 2022
Noomi Rapace wonders if she's cut out for the witching life

If your idea of a sorceress is Elizabeth Montgomery in Bewitched, you may find Goran Stolevski’s debut feature, You Won’t be Alone, a disturbing experience. The witch we meet in the first scenes of this film, Old Maid Maria, AKA. “the Wolf-Eatress” (Anamaria Marinca), is not a pretty sight. Bearing the scars from a burning at the stake, her face is an ugly ruin, with a few stray hairs still sticking to a skull-like head. Don’t imagine for a moment that Old Maid Maria’s hideous looks conceal a heart of gold – she’s evil to the core.

Stolevski, who migrated from Macedonia to Melbourne at the age of twelve has returned to the old country to make this film. The action is set in the 19th century, but it could be any time from the Middle Ages onwards, so primitive are the lives of the local peasants. The story begins with Old Maid Maria entering a home to seize a newborn baby girl. The terror-struck mother begs and pleads, making a desperate deal that if the child’s life is spared, she’ll surrender her daughter on the girl’s sixteeenth birthday. This may seem like merely buying time, but Maria agrees.

Not taking any chances, the mother conceals the child, Nevena (Sara Klimoska), in a great cave, where she will grow up devoid of contact with other people or the outside world. Naturally this doesn’t prevent Maria claiming her booty when the girl turns sixteen, although I won’t describe the way she goes about capturing the feral child and transforming her into a witch.

When she finds that Nevena would rather play with animals than devour them, Maria cuts her loose. The girl is left to fend for herself in the forest, knowing nothing of the world, but armed with the same shape-shifting powers as her adoptive mother. In other words, she has the ability to transform herself into an animal, a bird, another human being. These changes don’t occur in a puff of smoke, but through a gorey process of extracting organs from a dead body and stuffing them into her own chest. Whenever a witch is obliged to assume her real form, she grows a set of long, scary talons.

In the course of her transformations Nevena becomes a young mother, Bosilika (Noomi Rapace), then a dog, a young man, and a small girl. During the years she lives with the peasants she experiences the drunken violence of Bosilka’s husband, has sexual experiences as both a male and female, falls in love and marries. All the time, Old Maid Maria is lurking, warning Nevena to have nothing to do with humans, doing everything she can to sabotage the young witch’s happiness.

As a child, Nevena listens to Maria’s story told as a folktale. It explains the witch’s hatred of humans, and her scars, but doesn’t excuse her vindictive temperament which has festered over the centuries. The “Wolf-Eatress” continues to menace Nevena until the final scenes, when they confront each other in the most extreme circumstances.

This is not a story I can relate in any detail without giving away the twists that occur whenever Nevena is pushed into a corner. Those averse to gore and entrails might not make it through the first chapters, but You Won’t Be Alone has less gratuitous violence than the average horror movie. Every bloody episode advances the story, just as Nevena’s understanding and attachment to humanity grows with each transformation. There’s a cold beauty in the way the film has been shot, allowing us to experience the rawness and wonder of nature through the eyes of a fully-grown being seeing everything for the first time.

Stolevski has created a superior brand of horror film that poses lots of imponderable questions about the relationships between mothers and daughters, men and women, humans and animals. It asks if there is an inviolable core of goodness or badness within people that can survive the most bitter, violent experiences. Old Maid Maria has been permanently scarred, both physically and mentally, but Nevena, the feral child, has an instinctive striving towards the good.

With gender distinctions being among the most hotly debated topics of our time, this film presents us with a lead character capable of moving between genders, a blurring of boundaries that could only be dreamt of by those who like to call themselves “they”.

Despite the gothic trimmings, You Won’t Be Alone is a film about what it means to be an alien, a changeling in an unchanging community. It is, perhaps, a movie that could only have been made by a writer-director who moved to a new country and learned a new language while still in his early teens.

Nevena, who can transform herself at will, longs to be accepted by a village in thrall to tradition, that seems entirely isolated from the world. The same powers Maria uses to terrify and intimidate, are Nevena’s devices for concealing herself within a group. She wants only to lessen the distance between herself and mere mortals, having seen the terrible legacy of Maria’s isolation.

If this Serbian-Australian-British co-production may be classed as an Australian film, it’s one of the best of the year. It’s dark and brutal enough to qualify as a creation of our beloved local industry, but there’s an unusual streak of artistry in this fantastic tale. Perhaps Australian directors should make more movies in the Macedonian language.


You Won’t Be Alone

Written & directed by Goran Stolevski

Starring: Noomi Rapace, Anamaria Marinca, Sara Klimoska, Alice Englert, Félix Maritaud, Carloto Cotta,

Arta Dobroshi, Verica Nedeska

UK/Serbia/Australia, rated MA 15+, 108 mins



Published in the Australian Financial Review, 24 September, 2022