2018, R, 90 min. Directed by Andrew Desmond. Starring Freya Tingley, Simon Abkarian, James Faulkner, Rutger Hauer, Matt Barber.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Jan. 10, 2020
True Gothic Romance is not hearts-and-flowers. It's far more about a sense of dark wistfulness, of grotesqueries of the human heart, and a solid slathering of absurd melodrama. Of course, there are certain ingredients that only enhance the heady concoction - maidens in floaty white dresses, tiptoeing through mysterious and crumbling mansions to solve a sinister mystery, preferably about bloodlines and legacies, and a good creepy uncle or two only help the effect. Somehow, maudlin musical fantasy The Sonata manages to cram everything in, all wrapped together with a somewhat supernatural bow.
Of course, it begins (after a suitably enigmatic pre-credit incident of spontaneous combustion) with a missive, a lawyer's instruction to violin prodigy Rose Fisher (Tingley) that her missing father, the reclusive composer Richard Marlowe (Hauer) has died in mysterious circumstances. It was indeed he that we saw consumed by unholy fire in the opening moments, and this is a great surprise to Rose as she had thought him dead for decades. However, here comes the inevitable will-reading, and as his sole heir she inherits everything: his French chateau, his entire back catalog, and his great unfinished work, a sonata that had seemingly driven him mad. Mad, I tell you, mad!
If this seems like cliche-ridden gobbledook, that's because it is - and proudly so. And we haven't even got to the ancient French Satanic cult, the hidden symbols, the locked rooms, the housekeeper who appears out of nowhere, or the child ghosts. The script by first-time feature director Desmond and Arthur Morin has no interest in doing anything truly revolutionary with the form, and that's wise. Since Horace Walpole first rattled the bones of Gothic Romance in 1764 with The Castle of Otranto, it's never been about revising the constants, but instead the way they are interpreted. Think of it like furniture: the Gothic Romance is the hand-carved wooden armchair. It can be plain, it can be functional, it's arguably a little dated, but oh! the pleasures of the ornate legs, terminating in lions' paws, or the absurd beaded details of a lyre back. Those are what make each unique and beautiful, even if they are merely variations.
Tingley is a perfect Gothic heroine, with just enough hubris and curiosity to keep her in her father's abandoned house long after most people would have been driven away by creaks and shifting shadows. Yet much of the dark pleasure of the story comes from the slow decay of her relationship with her manager, Charles Vernais. It's a part that proves how badly veteran French character actor Simon Abkarian (Sally Potter's Yes, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem) has been overlooked by American directors (America's loss, France's gain, as his stellar French-language career shows). He plays Vernais as the agent whose time has passed him and who is about to lose his last big shot as Rose outgrows his talents. He keeps a perfect balance between Charles' avuncular care for the orphaned musician and his more venal fears - and kudos there to cinematographer Janis Eglitis. There's a good 18 inches height difference between Tingley and Abkarian, and Eglitis makes absolute perfect narrative use of that gap through perspective and wide shots. Sometimes she is still that child who he has protected; other times, he is a menacing presence, a lumbering shadow that towers and glowers over her.
Sure it's melodramatic and baroque but it's supposed to be, much as is another veteran character actor, James Faulkner (Game of Thrones' Randyll Tarly) as Sir Victor Ferdinand, the musical theoretician and amateur occultist. Channeling his best Christopher Lee in The Devil Rides Out, he's almost as perfectly hammy as Hauer (who turns up to burn and little else), but that's what you want from this film. Yes, The Sonata is a familiar tune, but the little flourishes, the moments both piano and forte, are what make the rendition worthwhile.