Per usual, Olivia Coleman is transfixing, and the film is almost a master class on how to construct a psychological thriller. It is hard to believe it is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s first feature.
Sadly, the film is not a psychological thriller. Rather, it’s a psychological character study of a middle aged woman and the choices she made as a young mother and professional. Coleman is a college professor on holiday in Greece, and during her stay, we cover the source of her disaffection from her two adult daughters, her kinship with a young woman (Dakota Johnson) who is clearly in maternal and familial crisis, and her inner turmoil at her own pathological selfishness and insecurity. It is the latter issue upon which the film turns. It is also its undoing, for while each flashback gives us greater insight as to her personality and her current state, it does not quite articulate why she does a particularly loony thing, a looniness made loonier by how she resolves the lunacy. Spoilers follow.
In her twenties, Coleman was driven mad by her own demanding daughters, so much so she abandoned them for several years, for the arms of an adoring colleague and a passionate affair. She eventually returned, but the coldness in her manner and guilt over her actions is evident years later, on holiday, when she encounters Johnson in similar conflict.
Gyllenhaal stacks the deck. The entirety of what we see of Coleman’s children in flashback and Johnson’s daughter in the present is wildly unflattering. The girls are not only obnoxious, but incessant, obtrusive and maddening. I may be having a generational problem here, because I cannot imagine such behavior being countenanced for a second, either growing up or when my daughter was that age, but perhaps Gyllenhaal was making a statement on the tyranny of children.
Regardless, Coleman becomes a confidante to Johnson but she also rather cruelly forces her into kinship by hiding the child’s beloved doll. In doing so, she takes a demanding child, who is already on the last nerve of the harried Johnson, and makes her a devil. Coleman can see this and either she wants to punish the child or she is leveraging the heightened distress of the brat to wheedle her way into Johnson’s trust. Either way, loony tunes.
The film pretty much ends with Coleman admitting to the crime, and Johnson, naturally, looking past any connection the two had established to conclude that Coleman is, indeed, a kook.
Which is undeniable and renders the layered and patient build-up pointless, a shame, because the film was meticulously crafted to go somewhere better.
This is one of those pictures where the 98% Rottentomatoes.com score from the critics and the 48% score from the audience makes great sense. Fix me in the latter camp. I kept waiting for the murder to happen.
Which reminds me of when I saw Monster’s Ball in the theater and an unimpressed man behind me was getting get shushed by his wife until finally, he declared he was leaving “unless there was motherfuckin’ monsters coming soon.” Then Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry had their steamy love scene and he was temporarily assuaged.