‘Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale’ is a British cauldron of secrets (Pilot review)

Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale is the latest magical fantasy offering from AMC+ and Sundance. The pilot episode premiered for free on Prime Video, with a second episode available simultaneously for subscribers of the premium channels. Starring Elaine Cassidy as Sarah Fenn, Sanctuary’s resident magical practitioner, the show is, at the core, an exploration of secrets. A young athlete, one of those types with a “promising future,” dies at a party, and the small town where he lives is shocked. 

The name of the V.V. James book that the series is adapted from, Sanctuary: A Novel of Suspense, Witchcraft, and Small Town Secrets is a lengthy but also pretty good summary of the plot. At first, the town and the authorities believe the athlete’s death is an accident. But as time goes on and more information about the party where he died and what went on there is revealed, things start to go sideways for this idyllic little town. 

Magic is accepted in Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale

Although Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale is billed as a supernatural crime drama, from the pilot episode, it is a deeper exploration of the little lies we tell ourselves about our “friends” and what we’re comfortable with. Magic is accepted in the town, and Sarah has a coven of non-magical friends (who are also prominent townspeople) around her that help her have the energy to accomplish her witchy undertakings. Abigail, played by Amy De Bhrún, the mom of the murdered Daniel, is even in the coven. 

The worldbuilding in Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale is subtle. At first glance, you would think that Sanctuary is a sleepy English town that’s normal and just rugby-obsessed. But the magical aspects are woven in subtly. In some ways, the subtleness is reminiscent of the pilot to Once Upon a Time. But whereas the ABC show fully embraced the magic and quite fantastic elements, based on the pilot, this show will retain the subtle approach. It’s almost an English counterpoint to “louder” American fantasy shows – there’s an underpinning of magic, but it is not the thing taking over. Magic is an allegory for something much deeper. 

A quietness reminiscent of The Essex Serpent

Where Sanctuary excels is this quietness. It’s not particularly exciting or in your face, but it feels (justifiably so) a very small-stakes British television. The series’ home is on AMC and Sundance, but it would equally fit on one of the PBS Masterpiece channels. This is not a knock on Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale in any respect. The show is reminiscent of Apple TV+’s The Essex Serpent in its stillness punctuated by moments of hysteria.

But where the supernatural in The Essex Serpent wasn’t a given part of the worldbuilding, nor an accepted fact of life by the residents of Colchester, it is very much accepted (and then rejected) by the town in Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale. As a viewer of The Essex Serpent, you wonder if the mythical beast actually exists, but as a viewer of this show, you (and the residents of the world) accept it 100% as a fact that witchcraft and magic exist.

Although this review only covers the series’ pilot episode, the breadcrumbs for potential series themes have already been laid, and the seeds have been planted. Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale revolves around a murder, but too it revolves around sex, shame, and womanhood. These are not unusual themes for a show about witchcraft – fiction, be it book or on screen, is often used as a way to explore them together. After all, it’s not so long ago in our real-life history that a woman speaking out of turn could easily be accused of being a witch. The drama Outlander shows this brilliantly where Claire (Caitriona Balfe) faces witchcraft accusations in the past because of her medical skills and opinions. 

Themes about shame, sexuality, and double standards

Cassidy’s Fenn is a mother and is a witch, and she feels some shame that she has been unable to pass down the witch abilities to her daughter. There are moments in the pilot where she reminisces about this, giving us a window into her past. There’s the shame around sex and promiscuity, too, and mother and daughter are linked in the theme of shame. Harper (Hazel Doupe) is under suspicion because of a sex tape between her and the dead athlete shown on the big screen at the party. 

By the end of the pilot, when a witness comes forward saying Dan was murdered, there’s strong foreshadowing that Hazel will be the one in the crosshairs for Dan’s death. DCI Maggie Knight, adroitly brought to life by The Spanish Princess’ Stephanie Levi-John, when she poses the question – why is Harper a slut when there were two people projected on the screen with the sex tape? On a broader note, using the sex tape as a vehicle for exploring shame is reminiscent of Hulu’s now-canceled anthology series Cruel Summer. There, too, sex and murder went hand in hand. Coupled with the magical angle and the relationship with Hazel and Sarah, it’s a show bubbling over with promise.

Visually, Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale makes the best use of what is a surely limited budget. Outside of the dramatic fire close to the story’s start that kicks off the cascade, the visual effects are limited. Again, this plays to the quietness of the show and fits the tone. As an audience, we’re not propelled forward by brimstone but by the slow and satisfying peeling away of the mystery’s layers. 

Something given for something gained

The pilot of Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale is worth checking out if you like slowly unfolding British mysteries infused with magic and a good dose of feminism. Stellar acting by Elaine Cassidy and Stephanie Levi-John help make this an enjoyable watch.

Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale is now streaming.

Have you watched the pilot episode yet? How about the second episode? What did you think? Connect with us on X @MoviesWeTexted and share your thoughts on Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale.

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