This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 11 August 2013
If you are feeling disheartened about the state of cinema based on what’s spewing forth from Hollywood, do not fear. Korean director Park Chan-wook knows how to make a compelling movie of real substance, and his collaboration with American Wentworth Miller, Australians Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska and Brit Matthew Goode shows you don’t even need to speak the same language to create hands-down one of the best films of the year.
Miller, best known as the star of TV’s Prison Break, shows enormous talent in his screenwriting debut with this delightfully tense gothic fairytale. Every moment is laden with unease and unanswered questions as we meet young India Stoker (Wasikowska) on the day of her beloved father’s funeral. Her mother (Kidman) is behaving very strangely for a grieving widow, and the sudden appearance of long-lost uncle Charlie seems to have an unseemly influence. Charlie decides to stay a while, and India initially reacts like any sullen teenager would towards the man who appears to be appropriating her father’s life.
A word of advice: Don’t watch the trailer first, as part of the pleasure is having the film unfold before you. Just trust me – from beginning to end, Stoker is a gourmet feast of billowing fabric, enigmatic closeups, subtle imagery and ecstatic piano music (thanks to composer Philip Glass. An unexpected duet makes for one of the best scenes in the film).
The non-English speaking Park directed his cast through an interpreter but they were clearly all of one mind, as the talented handling of the material demonstrates. Goode (A Single Man) is extraordinary as the beguiling, untrustworthy uncle, and Wasikowska nails perfectly her rendition of an easily influenced young girl who houses a feisty spirit. Even Kidman, who has a tendency to relish these “complicated” roles but sometimes falls into pastiche, plays it just right. The air is heavy with sexuality throughout, and everyone looks a million dollars.
Park’s history (a series of artistic, violent revenge movies exemplified by the critically acclaimed Old Boy) didn’t necessarily foreshadow a move into esoteric English-language arthouse – and yet, at the same time, the quality of his Korean works makes the magnificence of Stoker unsurprising.
He does cinematic storytelling at its best in this exquisite, exhilarating film.