2023, NR, 99 min. Directed by Paris Zarcilla. Starring Max Eigenmann, David Hayman, Leanne Best, Jaeden Paige Boadilla.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Dec. 1, 2023
Under the classics of British Gothic literature, your Wuthering Heights and The Mysteries of Udolpho, there's a bombastic subclass of the genre filled with crazed spinsters, evil aristocrats, and innocents caught in bizarre mansions.
It's in this potboiler end of the library that modern Gothic drama Raging Grace seems to have folded a few page corners. Its main purpose seems to be in updating the form's innate sense of class warfare (the uppers are always up to something perverse). This time, it's all from the perspective of a Filipino migrant caught in the baroque web of the British immigration system and the machinations of the last gasp of a faded noble family, the kind who will politely refer to her as "you people."
Not that Joy (Eigenmann) is in any way aware of the latter when she signs up, off the books, to be the caregiver for a barely lucid and cancer-riddled Mr. Garrett (Hayman). But what her brittle and clipped employer, Katherine (Best) doesn't know is that Joy secretly smuggled her daughter, Grace (Boadilla), into the house, too. Deception all around is the order of the day, as Joy takes this well-paid position to get the money to pay off a fixer to sort her immigration status through unknown methods.
Sadly, once she's in the house, any incisive social observation is drowned like poor Camille in Émile Zola's Thérèse Raquin. Director Paris Zarcilla has an eye for the lurid and ludicrous nature of the genre, and cinematographer Joel Honeywell uses the nooks and crannies of the oak-lined country house to great effect. But heavy-handed jump scares undercut any sense of tension, either thematic or narrative. Equally, characterizations never mesh: Eigenmann's Joy feels like she dropped out of a mid-Nineties Ken Loach TV play, but Katherine and Garrett are positively cartoonish in their melodrama. As for Grace herself, she veers wildly from childish innocence to The Turn of the Screw levels of miniature malice.
If Raging Grace could settle on a tone, maybe it would be more successful. But matters are not aided by a blunt-force trauma script that stamps on any sense of political subtlety. When Grace mishears Katherine's name as Karen, it's played for a cheap laugh that doesn't really mesh with the final reveals.
The Gothic and the political can easily walk hand in hand: After all, Dickens included a dissection of the potential for rehabilitation and redemption in a ruthless penal system AND spontaneous human combustion in Great Expectations. But Raging Grace is too gleefully ridiculous to live up to its didactic ambitions, and too on-the-nose to let its wings of crushed velvet madness truly spread.