The Girl From St. Agnes (Season 1), 2019
Signed up the 28/03/2017
The Girl From St. Agnes follows the story of the death of a young Grade 11 student at the prestigious all-girls boarding school, St. Agnes. The storyline quickly unravels after the girl's, Lexi, body had been found at the base of the school's old mill during an important event at the school.
Drama teacher Kate Ballard (Nina Milner) brings it upon herself to investigate whether the death was an accident or a murder. She journeys through her own memories of Lexi (Jane de Wet), juxtaposing her findings with that which is revealed to her as she searches around the school and the small town for answers. Soon she discovers that she perhaps knew very little of someone she'd thought to be a very close friend.
A whodunnit murder mystery is a genre familiar to anyone who has ever cared to sit in front of their television long enough. St. Agnes from episode one feels like a refreshing edition to these all-too-familiar grounds, shying away from the conservative clichés and instead setting itself apart from the rest by both tone and bald characterisation.
Everyone is a suspect, of course, but even with all the already overwhelming cases against some of the characters, reasonable doubt seems be the driving force to the story. And I mean, all these characters, even the ones that we want to root for seem to have questionable, sometimes downright creepy, inclinations.
Set in an eerily mysterious backdrop, the show feels like a ticking time bomb. The misty, isolated setting makes it that much more of an emotion-filled cataract. They make use of the best parts of South Africa's vast farm lands and enchanting landscapes, ultimately aiding the haunting atmosphere the show so stubbornly clings to- to its own advantage.
The sketchy characters make for a show that's well-balanced with a lot of story to go around. Very early on in the show we start caring about these characters' sub-storylines, which not only intensifies our need to get to the bottom of the main plot, but also helps us want to see through some of our favourite characters' plots. It's not very often that a show acquires this achievement. It takes a very well-thought-out story to spark interest in both the main storyline while also setting the hook on supporting characters.
I mentioned that every one is a suspect from the get-go, what impressed me even more was the pretexts to their culpable behaviour. We go on an emotional rollercoaster with each character, not knowing who to root for or hate, and this is perhaps the show's strongest trait aside from its highly commendable technical aspects.
Needless to say, the writing on this show is one of the best I've come across, both from a South African standard and an international one. The melodrama never gets in the way of the show feeling as human as possible. The sermon is that it could happen to you, to anyone. In this way we're reeled into a world that feels personal, thus we feel emotionally obligated to it. The writers manage to hit every dramatic beat without fail, this is sustained by the well-planned pacing which often proves to be the muscle that holds the show together.
The camera work is breathtakingly skilful. It's nothing like I've seen in any South African media, either on film or television. The editing is masterly. The intercuts between scenes, especially flashbacks, remind of the nifty work done on shows like David Fincher's Mindhunter and Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects. This is accompanied by a satisfying use of colours- as dark, misty greys and blues take course to instensify the show's sinister atmosphere.
Another technical aspect I was impressed by is the music. A musical score has the power to make or a break a film/show, and many cinematic offerings have previously failed to set their intended tone because this stealthy but highly vital aspect was overlooked. The showrunners here made no such mistake as they sought out one of the most competent musical directors there is. The well-crafted, emotionally impactful title sequence and its accompanying song alone let you know that this is not just another ordinary show.
The casting director- two-time Emmy-nominated, for The Looming Tower and Roots, Moonyeenn Lee- certainly deserves a raise after the solid she did the show. The ambivalence purported by each character as the plot unravels requires a highly-skilled cast. This challenge is well met by the charasmatic ensemble made up of South African acting excellence (Jerry Mofokeng, Camilla Waldman and Gary Clayton, among others), as well as newcomers. Break-out stars de Wet and Shamilla Miller (Lexi's best friend, Jen) effortlessly carry the show instead of crumbling under the pressure of being the focal characters.
The shell of the show is the celebration of South African culture, all the while managing to appeal to an international audience. This is just on par as the show is set to not only be available in South Africa, but will be destributed internationally by Red Arrow Studios- who distribute shows such as Bosch and Death and Nightingales. Everyone from anywhere in the world can dive right into this story and manage to feel as connected to it as any South African. Elements unique to South Africans, though, can be quickly picked up as a little tribute to the country's varying cultures.
With all this said, the most important thing that I've picked up from this show is that it takes highly skilled individuals who care about producing the best quality work, from their end of duty, to achieve an exceptional end-product. The St. Agnes team, from sound design to editing, costume to location, writing to directing, to acting, took their jobs very seriously. In the end their efforts afforded us an unforgettable experience. This show is a big win for South African television. After watching this I have no doubt that South African television can take over the world, if only it opens itself up to capable, fresh talent.
The eight-part Showmax original premiers on the platform on 31 January, 2019. Be ready to dive into the deep end of its mysteries. It's worth every last bit of your excitement!
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