Director Chan-wook Park’s sinister English language debut translates well
In dreamy bit of voiceover narration at the start, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) tells us, “we are not responsible for what we have come to be,” and director Chan-wook Park rewinds things back to the morning of India’s 18th birthday, not quite the beginning we might have anticipated, but we soon come to realize it is the moment when the struck match first sparked for this young woman. India wanders around the grounds of her home, playfully indulging the last fleeting traces of her adolescent wonder and searches for the her annual gift – a white box with a perfectly tied piece of yellow ribbon. We don’t know what she usually receives, but this year, oddly, the box is empty.
She heads back to the house and receives news that her father has died in a car accident. India reels; her father (Dermot Mulroney) was obviously her closest and dearest companion, much to the chagrin of her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). They are not so close. Side-by-side at the funeral, they couldn’t be further apart. India, alone in mourning, looks up and spies a figure in the distance – standing, shimmering, over another grave – and it seems as if she can hear him speaking to her, whispering directly inside her brain.
“Come meet your Uncle Charlie,” Evelyn beckons India, and there he is, Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), but who is Uncle Charlie? She never knew that she had an uncle and Evelyn is not much help. Charlie spins tales of his time in Europe, complimenting Evelyn on her French accent, dashing about in his Jaguar, digging around in the garden. He is younger than her father was – dark, mysterious and otherworldly.
And Park’s film matches this vibe as well. Prior to this meeting between India and her Uncle Charlie, the frames have displayed a distinct and formal mix of almost classical charm and a decided sense of menace. The creeping movement of a spider approaching India’s leg, the sound and vision of India rolling the shell off a cracked egg, boxes of shoes – the annual gift she received on her birthday, the same style seen year by year as the sizes changed – Park makes each study a showcase for a heightened state of tension. We are on the verge of blazing hellfire, the likes of which we’ve never seen before.
But we – those of us who have seen Wasikowska and Goode before – have seen something like this before, in snatches of their past performances. As I watched, I wondered about the unintentional links between performances. India is just the latest in a string (Sophie from the HBO series “In Treatment” and Joni from “The Kids Are All Right” or Alice Kingsleigh from “Alice in Wonderland” and the titular “Jane Eyre”) from the precocious Wasikowska, young women from all times and situations, but she finds something unique in each of them and their roiling teen angst. The best of her work comes when the camera catches her in silence and allows us to read what is underneath the frowns, scowls and hints of smiles.
It is much the same with Goode, a rom-com handsome British performer who, thankfully, seems to enjoy subverting Hollywood stereotypes for his looks. He crosses over to the dark side of the street every chance he gets – against the grain as an effective tough guy in “The Lookout” or Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, super-smart hero with a hidden agenda in “Watchmen” – and his Uncle Charlie is another delicious twist. He is the spider, captured earlier crawling up India’s leg, but instead, he and the film creep into our psyches. We can feel the tingle, but we wait, letting it tease us … until it is too late and our sensibilities are consumed by the flames.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com