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EIFF 2019: Review of WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE

By Simon Read [07.15.19]


An adaptation of the Shirley Jackson novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a self-consciously quirky, Burton-esque dark comedy about a family of misfits living in 1960s New England. Sticking to the basic structure of its source novel, the film follows the trials of the eccentric Blackwood family as they cope with their outsider status and the intrusive meddling of a visiting cousin.


Directed by Stacie Passon, written by Mark Kruger, the film falls somewhere between a thriller and a comedy with a cool sense of irony lingering over events. Following a scandal involving the poisoning of their parents, sisters Merricat (Taissa Farmiga) and Constance (Alexandra Daddario) live with their Uncle Julian (Crispin Glover) in their secluded estate. Cut off from the world, they are ostracised by the openly hostile local villagers, but live a quietly peaceful existence in their large, old house. Merricat practises sympathetic ritual magic, while Julian obsesses over his memoirs and Constance looks after the house. Sebastian Stan plays their preppy, interfering cousin, Charles, who arrives for a visit and quickly starts eyeing up the family fortune.


We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a film that one can almost choose to like or to dislike - it just depends if you want to get on board with it. While it is plodding in places - the narrative never really feels as though it takes flight - there are still things to enjoy, and, at least while I was watching it, I was entertained.



Jackson was known for peppering even her darker novels with elements of humour, and one of the problems with Castle is that it never feels as though it settles on an even tone. The trailer makes the film seem like an atmospheric, gothic horror/thriller, but many scenes are played out for laughs. Glover in particular is having fun as the permanently baffled Julian, wheelchair-bound and half-mad from arsenic poisoning (nobody ever hired Glover for subtlety) but this kind of tone, that of knowing irony, means that we can't take much of the darker stuff seriously.


Performances feel heightened. Farmiga as the neurotic Merricat is a deer in the headlamps, manically scurrying around the film attempting to solve her family's problems using witchcraft - she never pauses for breath. Daddario as the naive Constance has the air of a spooked housewife, wide-eyed and tense. Into this mix arrives Stan's Charles, the only sane person in the house, but too often his character seems lost amongst these lunatics - playing the straight guy is rarely ever much fun.


So, while the film is handsomely produced (by Michael Douglas) with period features and costumes, directed capably by Passon and containing plenty of energy and humour, it sometimes feels as though the more satirical aspects of Jackson's book, those which, on the page at least, walk hand-in-hand with its gothic horror tropes, have been mistranslated, emerging as quirky gags. It's an uneasy mix.


I've mentioned Tim Burton, and it does feel as though the film owes a debt to his early (good) films, specifically Beetlejuice, in terms of its mood and design. This probably isn't the film that the book deserves; it's uneven and never quite finds the right chord, but I wasn't bored watching it.



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