Top 10 films of 2013: Stoker
At 8th place in our writers' round up of the best films of the year, here's Chan-wook Park's English language debut...
Over the past few weeks, Den of Geek writers have been voting for their favourite films of the year. In 8th place is the quite wonderful Stoker. Here's why...
It’s not always the big blockbusters that need a sixty inch high-definition television to really shine when you watch them at home. Sometimes it’s the quiet films that deserve pin-sharp picture quality, so you can appreciate the levels of detail and careful attention that’s gone into every shot. Stoker’s main character experiences the world intensely; she has eyes and ears that pick up the smallest sounds and movements, and when you watch Stoker on a screen that enhances that experience, you identify with her in a way that makes for beautiful, uncomfortable viewing.
This is an intricate, layered film. As you watch it, you find yourself leaning forward, soaking up the slow movements of the camera. It’s the story of a young woman, India Stoker, (Mia Wasikowska) on her eighteenth birthday. Her father is killed in a car accident, leaving her in a large, secluded house with her nervy mother (played by Nicole Kidman). But on the day of the funeral, her handsome Uncle Charlie arrives (Matthew Goode), and gives both her and her mother the offer of emotional support. Charlie wants to be accepted into the family, but why? There’s a romantic triangle here between the three leads, but also a power struggle that moves stealthily into darker territory on sure, quiet, tiptoes.
Part of the pleasure of Stoker is the great use of symbolism. There are meanings within meanings, not only psychologically, but also in filmic terms. Shoes, for instance, are classic screen symbols as discussed in this article from earlier in the year; in Stoker India has been given a pair of casual shoes every year on her birthday by her father. There’s an elaborate game involving hunting in the garden for the shoebox, except this year it contains only a key, which leads to yet more secrets. Later in the film she is presented with a pair of high heels, and puts them on as she teeters at the top of the sweeping staircase. The message of the danger and glamour of changing into an adult is clear, and captivating.
Shoes, staircases, trains, glasses, and the important of colour – director Park Chan-Wook, making his English language debut, does a brilliant job of channelling the spirit of Hitchcock, who was a master of using symbolism to heighten suspense. This is appropriate given that writer Wentworth Miller was heavily influenced by Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), another film in which an Uncle Charlie comes to stay and exerts his influence over his niece. The only part of Stoker that is less successful, for me, is that here Charlie looks very young at time, almost childlike in intense moments. Colin Firth was initially attached to the project to play Charlie, and his performance might have given more of a sense of age to the character, which could have been interesting.
But that’s not to denigrate the performances generally. Nicole Kidman always seems to me to do her best work in roles where there’s an element of horror. Her face here is a mask, under which we catch quickly repressed flashes of desire. Mia Wasikowska is also very strong, capturing the lack of a clear moral compass in India’s life. Initially she’s a blank slate upon which Charlie can write, and her confusion and excitement about his presence is totally understandable. Later, she begins to recognise and assert her own personality, her face and body hardening as she decides who she wants to be.
Stoker comes with other connotations, not least of which is the use of the surname of the writer of Dracula, but although this is a story with a Gothic house and a macabre side, there are no supernatural elements. Instead it feels more Kubrickian as the cold, intellectual puzzle deepens. The way the camera moves around the house reminds me more of The Shining (1980) than of a traditional monster movie. In fact, Kidman compared working with Park Chan-Wook to working with Kubrick, drawing attention to the “heightened naturalism” that both directors create.
So Stoker is a film that knows its references, and takes ideas and symbols from some of the best directors of the past to make a modern film that really holds your attention on a microscopic level. It’s a great use of film history, and of the clarity of the images that can now be achieved. If this makes it sound far too clever for its own good, then I should add that it’s also a brilliant thriller, which twists and turns to a violent and horrible conclusion. The emotional and the intellectual go hand in hand here.
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