Wednesday, September 16, 2009

In a Dark Place

Warning bells tintinabulate from the off: it's a contemporary take on James's original; it's a UK/Luxembourg co-production; it's by someone you've never heard of. It gets 4.3 out of 10 on IMDb and doesn't even score on Rotten Tomatoes' Tomatometer with only two reviews counted. Ladies and gentlemen, let's hear it for the underdog.

I sat down to watch 'In a Dark Place' expecting to dislike it and wonder why I'd bought (oh, all right then: I bought it because it was £3 and Leelee Sobieski's easy on the eye). Come the end credits, I was wishing I could have liked it and fired off a quick 700 words for the blog laying waste to all the naysayers. Truth is, 'In a Dark Place' falls between two stools. It's not great, by any standards, and I'll come to the whys and wherefores and PLOT SPOILERS in a minute. But it's not dreadful either, though I can see why many people think it is. Taken at face value, it's very easy to write the film off. Hmmm, one could say, this is little more than Leelee Sobieski wandering round in a housecoat that doesn't quite close while any number of scenes play out that don't make a whole lot of sense. Entire chunks of dialogue suggest scenes that are missing, and Sobieski's performance is borderline comatose.

Sobieski plays Anna Veigh, an art teacher who is dismissed by her principal on vague grounds. She seems too fragile for the job. The principal (who sexually harrasses her during the exit interview) doesn't get more specific than "it's not working out". At face value, it's a crass scene. However, it chimes with Miles's expulsion (no reason is cited) and sketches in a key component of Anna's psychology. The principal later contacts her, concerned that their "little secret" remain just that, and assuring her that he's managed to find her another job: nanny to Flora (Gabrielle Adam) and Miles (Christian Olson), whose uncle Mr Laing (Jonathan Fox) is a bigshot corporate type too busy with hostile takeovers to bother about two orphaned children. Too busy, even, properly to interview Anna. He gets his personal secretary Ms Grose (Tara Fitzgerald) - whom he's also appointed as the manager of his estate - to take care of everything.

I must admit that Rottuno's adherence to James's original narrative, at least for the first half, is done well, particularly the finessing required to bring things into the twenty-first century. Grose's upgrade from avuncular housekeeper to frosty career woman is effective (Fitzgerald delivers the film's best performance) and sets up a tension between her and Anna which resolves (and then refragments) in a manner that has nothing to do with James's novella. Laing's sprawling estate is isolated (and the power frequently out) enough that the trappings of a contemporary setting don't impinge on necessary scenes of Anna encouraging the children to paint pictures or play hide and seek. Only once did I wonder why Flora and Miles didn't occupy themselves with an X-box or simply plonk themselves in front of the TV ... and then I reminded myself that Anna's an art teacher - of course she's going to encourage them to paint.

Adam and Olson - kudos to both - don't play the kids as overtly creepy. Most of the time, they're just regular kids. Therefore, when they do behave out of character - as when a disturbed Miles emerges from an outbuilding with sackcloth over his head and a scythe in his hands chanting "I'm not Miles, Miles is dead" - the effect is jolting. Fox's brief appearance as the uncle establishes the character as an authentically selfish bastard, the dollar bottom line his only consideration. Compared to Redgrave's lovable performance in 'The Innocents', Fox's is the more believable character.

Leelee Sobieski's performance is difficult. Superficially, it's a tad amateurish at times. Sometimes she wanders along corridors blankly. Other times, histrionics are a-go-go. It all comes to a head in the definitely-not-in-the-novella ending, and this is where a re-evaluation of her performance is demanded: yes, she vacillates between gauche, dazed and histrionic, but once the revelation is out these aspects of the performance suddenly have a context.

If you interpret the ending of 'The Innocents' as Miss Gibbens driving the vile spirit of Peter Quint away but sadly not managing to save Miles (thus establishing her as a laudable but tragic heroine), it's likely you'll foam at the mouth at how 'In a Dark Place' concludes. If, however, your take on it is that the ghosts are purely in Miss Gibbens' head, then Miles's death is something she is wholly responsible for and her suitability as a governess finds itself severely called into question. This is the reading 'In a Dark Place' opts for ... and Rottuno takes things to their logical extreme.

Adopting the reading that the governess is driven by sexual repression (resent at her father; unrequited desire for the children's uncle), 'In a Dark Place' grafts onto it a more darkly contemporary explanation: child abuse, repressed memories, the dark circle of a victim becoming an abuser. Told you there were plot spoilers. Rottuno's handling of the big revelation is only partly successful. He strives for the cinematic equivalent of what would be called the "unreliable narrator" in the novel form. This can work - Christopher Nolan's masterful 'The Prestige' for instance - and make you re-evaluate everything you've just seen even as the end credits are rolling and you're gaping at the screen in amazement. But it can only work if enough indicators, enough in the way of clues and context and comprehensible-in-retrospect giveaways, are there. 'In a Dark Place' doesn't quite make the cut. It relies too heavily on too much being left unsaid, unshown.

It also veers, in its last third, into exploitation territory: Anna's abuse as a child, an eleventh-hour lesbian subplot, Jessel and Quint done up like out-takes from a Lucio Fulci production, an unexplored suggestion of telekenesis, copious quantities of semi-nudity and a soft-core masturbation scene (15 certificate) that makes you wonder if Zalman King had an uncredited guest director slot.

There are plenty of reasons you could cite if you wanted to mark 'In a Dark Place' down as a failure. The fact that it works against all of these things makes it one of the more interesting takes on James's novella. I still hold that 'The Innocents' is a tad too accomplished but there can be no doubt about it: Clayton's film is the better of the two. Rottuno's, however, at least brings some new ideas to the table.


J.D. said...

Good review! I caught this on cable TV late one night and ended up watching it all the way through. I would pretty much agree with your assessment: not great but not awful either. I really liked Sobieski's performance (yeah, she's easy on the eyes, which helps), she gave it a kind of unpredictable edge which was refreshing. She's also kinda good in a horror film called NIGHT TRAIN with Danny Glover and Steve Zahn which is a good time waster but I would pay money for it.

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks, JD. I watched this within 24 hours of 'The Innocents' out of a sheer sense of the perverse, and the fact that it kept me interested kind of speaks for itself.

I still remember Sobieski chiefly as the fancy dress shop owner's daughter in 'Eyes Wide Shut'. She seems to be one of those actors who has a lot going for them but hasn't quite got the roles they deserve.

Having said that, I've not seen 'Night Train' yet. Think I'll add it to the LoveFilm wish list.

J.D. said...

Yeah, I think she will always be remembered for EYES WIDE SHUT. Not a bad thing, either. It was nice to see her in a tiny role in PUBLIC ENEMIES. Hopefully, that will lead to some more substantial roles.