Katalin Varga, Peter Strickland, 82 mins, (15)

In an atmosphere of mist-cloaked menace and gothic doom this British directed thriller is both timeless and bang up-to-date

Peter Strickland's Katalin Varga is a powerful, unsettling film. It's also, as we journos say, a good story.

Aspiring British director winds up teaching English in Budapest, then inherits some money and stakes it all on a long shot – making a feature film in Hungarian. The film plays in competition in Berlin to rapturous acclaim, prompting much discussion about why it's increasingly the case that practitioners of art cinema have to leave Britain if they want to make something truly distinctive. Mind you, you can see why Strickland had to make his film in Hungary: this tale of a woman's revenge, shot among looming mountains and featuring much firelit dancing to gypsy violin, wouldn't have been nearly as convincing set in his native Reading.

You can't help wondering also whether Katalin Varga would have had the same impact if it had been made by a Hungarian. I'm sure it would have been noticed, rather than passed over as just another low-budget eastern European offering. But undeniably, what's so fascinating about Katalin Varga is the singular feat that Strickland has brought off. He doesn't merely pastiche a certain old-fashioned strain of eastern European art cinema – the film could almost be a rediscovered gem of the Sixties or Seventies – but truly gets under the skin of the films that inspire him, so that Katalin Varga effectively becomes the genuine article. Strickland's film is, if you like, a forgery or an imposture, in that it's not exactly what a British director would "naturally" produce. But, notwithstanding the anomaly that it represents, the proof of Katalin Varga lies in the dramatic chill that, little by little, this subtle but powerful film comes to impart.

Filmed and set in Transylvania, Katalin Varga takes place in the present, although only the occasional baseball cap or mobile phone tells you that. Otherwise, the story is so timeless that we could be in the Middle Ages, or watching a historical tragedy that might have inspired an opera by Bartok or Janacek. The story starts on a classically ominous note, as men claiming they are police come to a house at night looking for one Katalin Varga. Who is she, and what has she done? And what has been done to her? No sooner have we met Katalin (Hilda Peter) than her angry husband is ordering her and her young son (Norbert Tanko) to leave their village. Katalin tells the boy they're off to visit his grandmother, then the pair ride their horse-drawn cart away from the green haven of their village into a landscape over which mountains loom with the mist-cloaked menace you tend to expect in Transylvanian tales.

There's undoubtedly a conventional streak of gothic doom at work: the look of terror that comes into Katalin's eyes as she gazes into a dark forest, or the way that children have a habit of singing folk ballads about sheep and marauding wolves. But Strickland consistently holds back from generic nightmare to pull his story back to the everyday. When Katalin settles her first debt with a man from the past, her violent act is cloaked in darkness: only later is his fate revealed, with concise black humour, by a shot of his boot protruding from undergrowth, as his mobile rings in the background.

For much of the film, the visual and narrative language is so simple that we might easily think we're not watching anything terribly special. But the atmosphere and tension gradually heighten until we realise that Katalin's journey is likely to be strictly one-way, for such is the inexorability of tragedy. In Britain, Strickland would no doubt have been leaned on to supply a "redemptive" ending: left to his own devices, he has taken the much tougher path that the story demands.

The film comes to a head in a mesmerising sequence as Katalin takes a rowboat ride with Antal (Tibor Palffy), the man she's come to confront, and his wife (Melinda Kantor). As she tells them the awful story we've been waiting to hear, Strickland stops showing us Antal's nervous reactions and concentrates on Katalin, leaning back with a disarming smile, water rippling behind her as the boat seemingly spirals away on the current. Eventually Katalin's language takes an eerie turn into the language of folk tale, suggesting that by telling her long-guarded secret, Katalin has, at last, opened up the gates of her own madness. New name Hilda Peter has kept us guessing about Katalin, shifting mercurially from mood to mood: finally unveiling her character's soul in this scene, Peter gives a performance of absolute calm command, one of the year's finest.

The film's most overly offbeat aspect is its soundtrack, with an other-worldly score, part choral, part electronic, by Steven Stapleton and Geoff Cox, and a genuinely enigmatic sound design: the climactic tragedy is announced, unnervingly, by an insistent tapping, as if the local woodpeckers are getting restless. Katalin Varga is a terrific, unshowily accomplished film, and it would be fascinating to see what Peter Strickland might do in a British setting. But then, why should he? It's a big world out there beyond UK cinema, and Reading's loss is Budapest's gain.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

    Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

    Today's pre-school child costs £35,000, according to Aviva. And that's but the tip of an iceberg, says DJ Taylor
    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US