Saturday 17 March 2018

Stoking the horror fire

Paul Whitington

Film Review: Stoker (18, general release, 99 minutes) Director: Park Chan-wook Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, Jacki Weaver

Park Chan-wook is famous for his beautifully photographed and dispassionately brutal psychological horror films, in particular the acclaimed Vengeance trilogy.

Stoker is the Korean's first English-language movie, and turns out to be a surprisingly restrained and elegant tribute to the work of Alfred Hitchcock.

There are shades of Suspicion, Psycho and especially Shadow of a Doubt to this impeccably made and genuinely creepy film that builds its drama on a ghastly parody of the nuclear family.

India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is a dreamy and remote 18-year-old high school girl who is devastated when her father dies suddenly in a car accident. She has no siblings and no real relationship with her mother Evelyn, an icy neurotic played with suspicious ease by Nicole Kidman. According to herself (and she's not a particularly reliable witness), India is hyper-observant, and can see and hear things few others notice. She's also extremely intelligent, and her bookishness and distant manner have made her an outcast at school.

India inhabits a morbid fantasy world, but is shaken from her torpor when an uncle she never knew she had turns up at her dad's funeral. Charlie Stoker (Matthew Goode) is simultaneously suave and sinister, but quickly charms Evelyn into inviting him to stay.

Her marriage to India's father was not a happy one, and soon she's on the verge of beginning a romantic relationship with her smooth-talking brother-in-law, much to her daughter's horror.

This is because India feels there's something not quite right about Charlie, a suspicion that intensifies when the family maid goes missing.

Chan-wook's film is disconcertingly beautiful: at first India seems a poetic type, and wanders sad-eyed through sun-kissed meadows and sleepy copses. We see her story largely from her point of view, and at the start she seems a fairly typical, if unusually isolated, teenage girl. But her obsession with passing insects and miniscule sounds is troubling, and India's frosty relationship with her mother suggests a mental fragility her uncle may be out to exploit.

Wasikowska tends to play vulnerable, spirited heroines, but is excellent here in a role that tests her in other directions. Kidman is very good as the demented but sultry housewife, and Goode is a study in ambiguity playing a role originally intended for Colin Firth. Goode's appearance is bland to the point of forgettability, but he's perfect as oily, dead-eyed Charlie.

And all in all Stoker is a mesmerizing, peculiar and very effective thriller that spins out its story extremely well and uses violence sparingly but compellingly.

Irish Independent

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