REVIEW: Bella in the Wych Elm
– By MovieCriticNextDoor
Every part of the world has its own private mysteries. In a small English town called Hagley, the mystery of the dead woman found in strange circumstances has lasted for almost 75 years as of this writing, with still no definite end in sight, despite several intriguing theories. The story has spawned several movies and books over the years, with this film, Bella in the Wych Elm, taking a matter-of-fact yet eerie approach to the tale.
The basic facts are simple enough: in April 1943, four teenage boys who were no doubt horribly bored went trespassing in Hagley Wood with the intention of stealing birds’ eggs. Well, there was a war on, maybe they were running out of other food. One of the boys climbed a large wych elm, also called a Scots elm, no doubt hoping for a proportionately large birds’ nest. Instead, he was shocked to discover a human skull.
The boys swore secrecy, but four teenagers can’t keep any kind of a secret and it wasn’t long before the local police sergeant (Barry Anscomb Moon) was called in. Pathologist J.M. Webster (Jim Heal) determined the skeleton belonged to a woman of about 35 who had been left in the tree about 18 months. Her description matched no missing persons reports and the trail grew cold. By Christmas, however, graffiti had begun to appear in the area, asking the unsettling question, “Who put Bella in the wych elm?” Even the police began to call their unknown corpse Bella, but that brought them no closer to discovering who was leaving the graffiti and what that person knew.
For the tenth anniversary of the grisly discovery, a local reporter, W. Byford Jones (James Taylor), writing under the pen name ‘Quaestor’, revisited the case. His articles prompted a woman named Una Mossop (Traci Templer) to admit what she knew, or rather what she said her husband Jack (James Underwood) had told her about the dead woman. Was she working with a Dutch spy (Lee Mark Jones), as Jack claimed? A cabaret singer recruited by the Nazis as an agent in England? Or someone else entirely?
With folksy narration by “Tatty” Dave Jones, the film hovers somewhere between documentary and horror movie, starting with the known facts and popular theories but also exploring the trauma the mysterious woman’s life and death left behind for those involved, however innocently. The images are made to look old, complete with washed-out areas and dark lines, but far from being distracting they only serve to pull the viewer in. And the film has some of the creepiest, most unnerving sounds I’ve ever heard, which left me both cringing and fascinated. It’s a deeply atmospheric exploration of the legend, informative and tantalizing, and it will leave you wishing you knew more.