Home Pge, Site Index, Search, Help

‘Paperhouse’ (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 24, 1989

"Paperhouse," the new British film by Bernard Rose, is languorously haunting. It's moody and unnerving in a hard-to-specify way, like a piece of music set in an enthralling but wholly unfamiliar key.

Its heroine is a bright but forlorn young girl named Anna (Charlotte Burke, in her first film) who, with the onset of glandular fever, begins to drift off into an alternate world that she has sketched roughly on a sheet of drawing paper. The center of that world is a two-story stone house set off alone in the middle of a vast grassy field. The facade of the house is virtually without detail, in the way that children's drawings often are -- just gray stones, windows and a door. But the blankness of Gemma Jackson's sets helps create a mood of repressed horror. It's as if the house itself were experiencing some peculiar deficit, and the feeling you get from it is like the terror you feel in a nightmare when you scream and nothing comes out. It's what's missing that's frightening.

Rose captures something I've never seen on film before, and that is the uncanny absorption of children in their play. Bending over her drawing paper, Anna seems lost to the rest of the world, oblivious, concentrated, as if nothing else existed. There's a reason for this: Whatever she draws becomes a part of her imagined other world. During one vision, she finds a little boy named Marc (Elliott Spiers) sitting by the window in the place where she had drawn him, and immediately she wishes she had put down a more cheerful playmate. Marc, as it turns out, has a reason to be depressed -- in real life he is gravely ill and hasn't left his bed for a year.

As Anna, Charlotte Burke has that remarkable sense of self-possession one often finds in British children, yet there's a beleaguered softness in her, too, especially around the eyes. Matthew Jacobs' script hints at the forces behind the events in the story, but it obfuscates as much as it reveals. And Rose seems comfortable leaving the psychological details and relationships vague. It's implicit, for example, in Anna's relationship with her father (Ben Cross) that Oedipal forces are being violently expressed, but the shape they take is so inchoate, so inexplicable, that they slip in under your intellect and take root in your unconscious.

For the most part, the film's horror is associative, poetic, and the oddness of, say, the objects that Anna has drawn into Marc's room is more unsettling than shocking. But the section of the picture in which Anna tries to liberate Marc from the house and from his illness is truly terrifying. The picture doesn't finish off well, and, ultimately, we wish the filmmakers had been better able to connect the psychological dots. Rose has given the picture a strong sensuous pulse and an extraordinarily vivid presence. Almost imperceptibly, the mood of the piece gets to you. When the lights come up, it takes more than a few minutes to shake it.

Copyright The Washington Post

Back to the top

Home Page, Site Index, Search, Help