Though based on Shirley Jackson’s mystery novel, director Stacie Passon’s and screenwriter Mark Kruger’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle is not very chilling, instead it is quite uncomfortable. Discomfort is arguably a very good response to a thriller, but this unease was unfortunately not due to the story—it came from the storytelling itself. (MJJ: 2/5)
Review by FF2 Associate Malin J. Jornvi
First off: this is not going to be my regular type of review in which I recommend a movie regardless of some perceived shortcomings. Instead, giving away the gist of this text in an attempt to imitate the use of the voice over in the opening scene of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I admit firsthand that watching this film was not a worthwhile experience. However, knowing that I can only write from my personal perspective and also being curious in exploring what exactly is that I did not find to work, the rest of this review is precisely that: an analysis of various cinematic parts which make up the film, and putting them in relation to the most important aspect—the story itself. A disclaimer is hence in order as it is possible that someone with more familiarity of Jackson’s novel will have a substantially different take on this movie. Yet, I still believe that it is crucial for an adaption to stand on its own, and it is from that angle that I now write.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is based on the mystery novel by Shirley Jackson and it is adapted to the screen by Mark Kruger together with director Stacie Passon. It is a thriller novel, and so one could expect a visual version that uses the film medium to add to the inherent intrigue. Still, the mood conveyed in the trailer with its dramatic soundtrack and quick cuts is definitely more on the horror side of the scary film spectrum. A few minutes into the actual film, however, it becomes clear that this movie is anything but scary, nor is it particularly suspenseful as the voice of the main character Merricat (Taissa Farminga) will from the opening scene explain both what has happened previously, as well as what is coming.
The continuous voice over detracts from the suspenseful narrative structure, and so does the pacing as it is way too quick in the beginning of the film. For someone who does not know the novel in advance, the first ten minutes are difficult to follow as Merricat is tasked to get groceries in the village and is hence ceaselessly harassed and treated with a disrespect that is really hard to justify, even withstanding the villagers repeated efforts to explain their fear. The old devise “show-don’t-tell” comes to mind, but is here used in reverse. And while some aspects are overly verbally narrated, others that would require at least some elucidation are left in the dark. For example, Merricat’s infatuation with spells and magic is nowhere explained and the viewer is thus forced just to accept that her digging silver coins into the ground or nailing books to trees is part of some mysterious ritual to protect her family from what she explains to be “a change that is coming.” And why does she refuse to wash her hands?
These examples lead to the portrayal of the characters themselves. A suspense thriller relies on a very delicate balance between exposing the persona yet at the same time maintaining a sinister vibe of not knowing whom to trust. The viewer thus has to be kept at just the right distance. But this is where Merricat stays too much on the mysterious side: being the main character and embodying the perspective of the film, she remains unfathomably strange. This is however a choice that can work if the film provides other points of identification. But those are not given—on the contrary. For instance, the cousin that comes to visit, Charles Blackwood (Sebastian Stan), is instead depicted a cliché to the extent that it pulls the viewer out of the narrative altogether. Acting wise, I believe it is mainly the way he reacts too quickly—it is like he knows what is going to happen and has decided how to respond beforehand. Of course this is what an actor does, but the key is to pretend that one is not acting. Instead of serving the story, Stan’s Charles instead serves as a paradigmatic illustration of an actor who does not play the scene, but the script.
And so to the story itself. Being a mystery classic, I understand the pull to turn Jackson’s novel into a moving picture. I also understand its commentary on our times with the estrangement and antagonization of crooked elites versus small town rednecks. I also get the feminist part, the role of sisterhood, and the film certainly does a good job in adapting a fictional 1962 scenario to fit the feminist discourse in reality 2019. Yet, due to the shortcomings of the storytelling the feminist aspect is not developed to its full potential. One example is how the characterization of the older sister Constance (Alexandra Daddario) remains victimizing and sketch board thin.
What is more feminist about the film is the notable work of the whole production crew. We Have Always Lived in the Castle has an outstanding set design which is fully explored by the cinematography with its interesting camera angles filled with musty and saturated colors. I can also appreciate the sound department and their play on the first half’s classic daunting soundstage in order to then move over to 50-60s American pop ballads to match Constance falling in love. These are the cinematic details that can expand and make justice to the nuances necessary to tell a mystery narrative, if only the telling of the story itself holds.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle thus has some wonderful elements, elements that however will work best in the crew’s subsequent work samples and camera reels. As for this movie, it would need a fleshier reworking of the novel and a rethinking of what is said, and what is left untold. Or rather, of what is said, and what is showed.
© Malin J. Jornvi (5/19/19) FF2 Media
Photo Credits: Brainstorm Media
Q: Does We Have Always Lived in the Castle pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?