Other than King Kong and possibly some of the Lord of the Rings films (some? all? one? none? I can’t recall) this was closer to the last of Peter Jackson’s movies that I viewed. I’m not sure what I expected–a full-fledged fantasy based around true events? A thoroughly dramatic, purely realist tale with Peter Jackson’s hands behind it? I managed to forget in the interceding years between my first viewing and this one that there were as many fantastic elements to this film as there are.
Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet, in her first major film role) and Pauline Rieper (Melanie Lynskey, in her first role period) are two young girls in Christchurch, New Zealand who befriend each other at an all girl school, first over their mutually bed-ridden childhoods (tuberculosis for Hulme and osteomyelitis for Rieper) and later over the religion they form, with Mario Lanza, James Mason, and other “stars of stage and screen” forming the Saints thereof, all of the other plane known as the “Fourth World,” wherein one finds the land of Borovnia, ruled by Charles and Deborah (that’s deh-BOHR-uh) and a cast and lineage the two worked out in detail. They write novels of this land which they intend to publish and fantasize about moving to Hollywood to become famous actresses and writers. Around their world is of course the real one, the Rieper family a local and semi-destitute one, boarding strangers constantly in their home and the Hulme family wealthy and English in origin. The Riepers are hard-working but full of as many mistakes and poor judgments as anyone else, occasionally trusting in the wrong souls–almost the epitome of the stereotypical working family, honest, good folk with aspirations to something more than what they have. The Hulmes, on the other hand, are almost the equivalent opposite stereotype–aloof, detached, disconnected and emotionally secretive, flighty and flamboyant, their issues manifesting on a more personal level without the overbearing cause of maintaining the household itself to restrain them from exploration of other possible problems in life.
I remember liking this film when I first saw it, but of course being vaguely disappointed that it was not in the style of the Jackson films that preceded or immediately followed it. For all that his massive, big-budget releases have been quite good films (yes, I even liked King Kong, for those who may find that surprising), I feel a sort of sorrow as a fan of cult curiosities and horror movies that we have lost the work of the man who created Meet the Feebles and Braindead (known as Dead Alive stateside) in favour of well-made but not overly atypical films. I feel this may have been the starting point for that, even though the following film, The Frighteners, was also closer to the realms of Hollywood. However, there was an immense mischievousness to that film that I felt this one lacked, I felt that this was curtailing Jackson’s wilder (and most entertaining!) impulses in favour of stronger visuals and artistry behind more careful, serious, dramatic scripts.
I still feel that way, to some degree, but I had indeed forgotten the imagination that went into this project, even if it was simply a translation of the imagination of those two girls. All of their Borovnian inhabitants were manifested in the real world as small plasticine figures, and Jackson, brilliantly, brings those figures to life when we see into the “Fourth World”–living plasticine (down to mouths that do not have actual openings, but instead are “filled” with plasticine) beings greet us, dance, barter, trade, kill, and so on. And “it,” their most hated of stars (Orson Welles–for shame!) even comes free from their viewing of The Third Man to chase them. This is the spirit in Jackson that I so admire, and, while I appreciate that he has not left genre fans behind (at all, really–I mean, there are an awful lot of non-human entities in the films that followed), I do mourn a bit the loss of these physical effects and the spirit in which they were created. Also not yet gone from him were his great affections for intense closeups from low angles, often giving a disorienting feeling of bulging eyes or falsely prominent mouths. His cameras were always livelier in the earlier years–not spinning wildly out of control, but seeming as if they had their own feet (of course, they probably did at least some of the time, when not on cranes or carts or the like) and soul.
One thing that itched at me through most of the first half of the movie is the lack of renown for Lynskey–Winslet went on to stardom and Oscar nominations, with Lynskey only later regaining prominence and few roles of the visibility Winslet has acquired. I may or may not be treading controversial ground in saying this, but I feel that Lynskey was the stronger actress of the two, at the very least in this film, managing to portray the awkward embarasment and sullen, moody temperament of a girl dissatisfied with the way things are and obsessed with romanticizing the way she wants things to be. Most impressively, we are made to feel sympathetic to both her teenage angst and the occasionally misguided but well-intentioned parenting of her mother (Sarah Peirse). We know both that when she is making a mistake and why, and know also that when Rieper begins to assign blame and fault for what is wrong with her world on her mother, we see why she does this, and why it is not the case, and the sickening irony of the fact that the one she holds highest is the one actually responsible for her predicament. But even there, this source–Hulme’s father Henry (Clive Merrison)–is portrayed (at least in this “director’s” cut) with an approach that shows that he is trying to control the one thing he feels he can in a world where he is a cuckolded weakling.
But inside all of this…we have Kate Winslet. Perhaps my opinion of her was marred by her childish response to loss at the 1998 Academy Awards,* but I found her immensely irritating here. She was not bad, no, not by any stretch, but she suffered something I’ve seen before in young actors, both in working with them during my brief flirtation with the stage and in other theatrical and television features: ego. Nothing is more disbelief-crippling for me than an actor who is overly aware of their own talent and cannot submerse themselves in a role. Well, unless it’s someone who is overly aware of a talent they don’t even have and cannot hide it (see: comedic actors I hate, who I will not name for fear of alienating the majority of humanity, and only about 10 people read these reviews as is). But throughout the first part of the film, I felt constantly as if Winslet were almost Oscar-baiting, as if she was so convinced of how wonderful an actor she was, that it was all she could do not to smoothly break character, say, “Gosh, I am a fantastic actress!” and then smoothly reinsert herself. The inability to hide oneself in a role is a far more unforgivable crime to me than is that of being a poor actor (within reason, at least). I can stomach someone who can’t quite control their movement or tonality to fine-tune it to a role, but when you can see their ego pushing at the seams of the role, something just snaps in me. I kept trying to put that distaste back in its box and be open-minded, but she consistently gave me this impression until about the last third of the film. It’s truly a shame, I think, that she was taken to stardom over Lynskey who was purely natural–perhaps as a result of not being an experienced actor.
Still, her talent was present and she portrayed the character admirably, and the work of Jackson, co-writer (as usual!) Fran Walsh and Richard Taylor as well as the rest of the cast keep this movie consistently engaging, exciting and well-made, enough so that I can’t really knock it for Winslet’s selfish performance. Do yourself a favour and give this (and anything else Jackson did prior to breaking out with those three films you already know, even if you hate or never saw them) a chance.
*I would be foolish to tell why I was watching that year, but I’m an open enough person that I’ll let you in on that secret: Starship Troopers was one of the first films I dearly loved theatrically–which is dating myself if you don’t already know my age–and I somewhat naïvely hoped it would win some magnificent award. It still should have won visual effects, darn it–over Titanic, of all things, that should have been easy. Oops, if you read this, you’ve probably disregarded my taste in film completely. Oh well.