Modern Gothic romance, with all the historic chills
By Richard Whittaker,
9:00AM, Sat. Feb. 13, 2016
When Guillermo del Toro made the grandiose Crimson Peak, he was quick to note that, for all the ghosts and murder, it was not a horror movie. Instead, he was trying to educate viewers on the finer notes of the Gothic Romance. He'll probably smile with recognition at the smaller but no less subversive Estranged.
The movies share a central conceit: An unwitting innocent taken to a mysterious mansion, only to uncover deceit and sexual intrigue. Admittedly, that's pretty much all they have in common, but it's that, and the appealingly lurid sensibilities with which this torrid little self-contained world is depicted, that paint them deliciously and diabolically as part of the Gothic ouevre.
Directed by Adam Levins (cinematographer on 2009's City Rats, also written by Estranged scripter Simon Fantauzzo), the narrative follows January (Amy Mason), the scion of a family of minor British landed gentry. She returns under the worst of circumstances: crippled in a moped accident in Africa and confined to a wheelchair, the crash has also left her with total amnesia about this place she is supposed to call home, and the people who are allegedly her family.
It's a roll call of weirdness and well-known British TV character actors. Her father (all-time great Scottish heavy James Cosmo) is a roiling, rippling sea of fury. Her mother (Eileen Nicholas, who coincidentally appeared with Cosmo as Renton's parents in Trainspotting) is a distant ghost of a caregiver, staring perpetually into the recent past. Sister Kathrine (Nora-Jane Noone, The Descent, Brooklyn) is a little to welcoming, while brother Laurence (James Lance, Spaced, Brosnan) is overly attentive in the most disturbing way. Throw into the mix January's supportive but dangerously inquisitive boyfriend Callum (Simon Quarterman) and a full-blown creepy butler (Craig Conway, The Descent, Dog Soldiers), and it's a question of how deliciously disturbing the denouement will be.
This is Downton Abbey rewritten by De Sade, with its sweet hints of aristocratic debauchery and the inevitable corruption of nobility. As the modern girl/tabula rasa innocent, January is subjected to all the indignities of the genre (incestual advances, imprisonment, dark secrets, the fact that she's never in any of the family pictures).
Most of the entertaining madness comes from the family, especially Lance. He turns the lugubrious Laurence into an inbred Bertie Wooster, dressed to perfection as an overgrown private school boy. His ability to deliver some of the film's most shocking lines with a deadpan panache leans into high theatricality without ever collapsing into pastiche.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously (or possibly fallaciously) said that the rich are different, and he was talking about America's nouveau riche, not the century-spanning, navel gazing of Europe. Now that bunch, they've had real practice on becoming a parallel species. A key element of Gothic romance is that the aristocracy aren't necessarily rich, but have hung on to all those differences, and become even more isolated and bizarre. Everything about Estranged re-enforces that idea: Shot on location in the 19th Century Lambton Castle, the antique setting adds an undefinable but certainly off-kilter sense of timelessness.
That's matched in the wardrobe choices, in which each member of the family seemingly wears clothes from the last time they felt happy. The effect creates a sense that they are all preserved in cultural aspic. Their garments are threadbare and unfashionable but, as the perceived wisdom goes, what would be destitute madness among the proletariat is whimsical idiosyncrasy for the upper classes.
Is it overblown and a little cartoonish? Why yes, of course! This is cinema inspired by a form of prose so purple that you can see the vermilion blood that pumps through the veins beneath its paper-thin skin. However, cinematographer Gary Shaw uses long, glacial tracking shots to give an airy grace to the febrile events. Meanwhile, editor Ben King intercuts them with overly intimate close-ups that deliberately hang a carefully selected beat too long, making the family's normality seem like a carefully emulated and rehearsed act.
As is always the way with true Gothic romance, the resolution is little solace for anyone seeking a morally clear-cut ending, but it's sure as hell rewarding. Also, added points for Fantauzzo for shooting what he calls "the worst making-of featurette ever," which is actually a lot better than he gives himself credit.
Estranged (Well Go USA) is out now on DVD and Blu-ray.