Guillermo del Toro reminds us of the ancient belief that birds are the creatures that carry our prayers all the way to the gods. And when they are in the process of collecting said prayers, they form patterns in the twilight sky, which are called “murmurations.” Those murmurations are actually a reference to the very real gatherings of starlings who form cloud-like shapes and twist and turn in the sky. The popular reason behind it is that it gives the starlings a sense of safety against predators. Del Toro adds that the word has a second meaning which is synonymous with muttering, grumbling, or whispering to oneself about the pain and suffering one is feeling. Directed by Jennifer Kent and based on the short story by del Toro, “The Murmuring” follows ornithologists Nancy (Essie Davis) and Edgar (Andrew Lincoln) as they travel to an island to live in a secluded house and study and record the migrating dunlins. That’s not the only reason they’re going there, though. The couple has suffered the loss of their baby, Ava, and intends to heal together. However, something in that house begins to haunt Nancy specifically.
Major Spoilers Ahead
What Did Nancy Find In The Attic?
Much of the first act is spent on establishing the fact that there’s a lot of (emotional) distance between Nancy and Edgar, despite their chemistry with each other. Edgar expresses his love for Nancy by explicitly mentioning it. He makes sandwiches for her. He also makes his intentions of getting intimate with her very obvious. Because he thinks that these are the things that Nancy needs in order to openly grieve for their dead baby or at least talk about it. But Nancy, who is very clearly in the saddest state of mind, doesn’t reciprocate these gestures. In between these interactions, Nancy and Edgar record, both on audio and on video, the murmurations around the island. And during the night, and once the sun has set, Nancy is haunted by strange noises in her audio-recording device. On one such night, she clearly hears the sound of footsteps and a shadow passing by their bedroom door. She follows it to the attic only to see that it’s serving as a nest for the dunlins. The reason why it comes off as unnatural is that dunlins don’t nest above shrub level.
Within the first 20 minutes of the anthology film, Jennifer Kent establishes that this is going to be a slow burn. So, we need to be patient about how this story is going to unfurl. More than the jump-scares, she prioritizes the tension in the relationship between Nancy and Edgar. It shows how differently Nancy and Edgar are processing the grief of losing a child and, in general terms, how differently a man thinks that they can move past it and restart things again. There’s no doubt that both of them are in mourning, and Edgar means well every time he tried to restart their lives. But what he doesn’t understand – and maybe most men don’t understand – is that a mother processes such a devastating occurrence much differently than a father does. Carrying a baby, feeding it, and nurturing it creates a very intimate dynamic that cannot be “fixed” by having sex again. That difference in perspective is so palpable in Davis and Lincoln’s performances. On a technical level, the color palette and mellow cinematography of the film are oddly comforting. Since the setting is an empty house and the protagonists’ profession largely involves recording sounds, the sound design is immaculate. And as mentioned before, the pacing of the film allows you to take in all these elements piece by piece.
What Does The Ghost Of The Dead Child Indicate?
Along with the interest in the birds, Nancy starts to look deeper and deeper into the previous owners of the house they are living in. This is fueled by the repeated but obscure sightings of a child running around the house and the sound of voices in Nancy’s recordings of the birds. But when Edgar listens to those tapes, he hears nothing. So, he chalks it up to Nancy’s lack of sleep and sadness (that she’s not willing to share with Edgar). That doesn’t dissuade Nancy from looking for more clues regarding the owners of the house and what happened to the child of that family. She comes across a locked closet full of letters and an embroidered cloth with a woman standing near a flock of dunlins flying away and the words “freedom” written on it. Nancy assumes that there’s some supernatural connection between her and the woman in that piece of art. When Edgar tells her to be scientific about it, she gets angry at him because she doesn’t want to be practical for a minute or two. And as she deviates from her work and gets closer to the story of the owners, her sightings of the child’s ghost become more and more vivid.
Based on the letters and the wetness of the child’s ghost, it is safe to assume that his mother was having an affair with a married man. The mother waited for the man to come back to her after the war. But the man went back to his wife because he felt the need to honor her marriage, thereby stranding the woman and her child on the secluded island. So, out of sadness and possible humiliation, she drowned the child and then killed herself. It’s clear that Nancy empathizes and relates to the mother’s sadness and the death of her child. Although it’s never spelled out clearly – not even at the very end – I don’t think Nancy killed Ava. But she definitely blames herself for it. Maybe she thinks that she should have taken better care of her child or done something to prevent her death. And she thinks that, somehow, her negligence led to Ava’s demise. But as Edgar doesn’t see things that way, she starts to get irritated by him and probably draws parallels between Edgar and the man in the pictures, especially after he tries to force her into sleeping with him. It’s a pretty gross scene to witness and re-establishes the fact that Edgar is really bad at being sensitive around Nancy.
‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ Episode 8 ‘The Murmuring’ Ending Explained: Does Nancy Succeed In Overcoming Her Grief?
During the concluding moments of the film, Nancy witnesses the ghost of the mother running after the ghost of the boy. She shields the boy and essentially tells the mother to go away. As the sun rises on the island again, Nancy assures the boy that his death wasn’t his fault and that he was the perfect child. Once convinced, the boy rushes towards Nancy and disappears, thereby indicating that he’s at peace now. Nancy goes to the attic next and sees a vision of the mother killing herself. Soon after that, she notices a murmuration and steps outside her house. The flock of dunlins passes around her as if they are cleansing her soul and lifting the weight of the death of Ava from her shoulders. Hence, she calls up Edgar on the radio and says that she is ready to talk about Ava and process her loss together.
The fact that Nancy empathizes with the plight of the dead mother and child and uses it to process everything that has happened in her life instead of sitting down with her husband to talk about it can seem odd. But, firstly, it’s a horror movie, and secondly, Edgar’s way of expressing that he’s open to having a conversation about Ava straight-up sucks. So, it’s pretty logical for her to find a story in the walls of the house, play a version of that in her head, and then open herself up to Edgar. Yes, I do think there aren’t any ghosts in the house, just like there weren’t any ghosts in the 1993 Fazil directorial, “Manichitrathazhu.” Much like Ganga (Shobana) in that movie, Nancy starts to visualize the events that have occurred in the house. Thankfully, unlike Ganga, Nancy doesn’t re-enact those events in real-time. She merely uses it as a gateway to achieve some form of catharsis or closure regarding Ava’s death. Since she couldn’t give Ava any solace during her last moments, she feels a little content upon getting the opportunity to comfort the spirit of the dead child. And by seeing the mother die in front of her, Nancy comes to the realization that the part of her that was a mother to Ava is gone, permanently.
My main issue with “The Murmuring” is that the reveal happens a little too quickly and a little too conveniently. Hence, the payoff doesn’t feel as stirring as it looks on-screen. In addition to that, the connection between the dead mother and child and Nancy is a little scant in details. I can theorize all I want in order to give some weight to this supernatural relationship. But, at the end of the day, it’s just a bunch of assumptions on my part. Bringing back the “Manichitrathazhu” comparisons one more time because that movie showed why someone like Ganga could’ve related to Nagavalli, even though they were worlds and generations apart. I can’t say the same about Nancy and the deceased mother. But that doesn’t mean that the movie is bad in any way. I like Kent’s take on the horror genre, and I think “The Murmuring” is a pretty decent follow-up to “The Babadook” and “The Nightingale.” The film looks and sounds amazing. Essie Davis proves yet again why she’s one of the best in the business. And seeing Andrew Lincoln in something that’s not “The Walking Dead” is so refreshing. Someone, please, get him out of that franchise so that he can take on various roles like this one.