Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #382
Number of Views: Two
Release Date: 10 September 1988
Sub-Genre: Dark Fantasy
Country of Origin: United Kingdom
Running Time: 92 minutes
Director: Bernard Rose
Producers: Tim Bevan, Sarah Radclyffe, Jane Frazer, Dan Ireland, M.J. Peckos
Screenplay: Matthew Jacobs
Special Effects: Alan Whibley
Cinematography: Mike Southon
Score: Stanley Myers, Hans Zimmer
Editing: Dan Rae
Studio: Working Title Films
Distributor: Vestron Pictures
Stars: Charlotte Burke, Glenne Headly, Elliott Spiers, Ben Cross, Jane Bertish, Samantha Cahill, Sarah Newbold, Gary Bleasdale, Gemma Jones
Suggested Audio Candy:
Stanley Myers, Hans Zimmer Soundtrack Suite
Have you ever been to that place? I cannot explain it to you exactly as it will look just how you created it and my description will fail to do it any justice. I’m speaking of a place purely designed by your own imagination; right down to any fixtures and fittings. You remember surely; that one place in the world that nobody else could ever access, unless you necessitated such. I had one such freehold hideaway; spent all my waking hours working on its architecture and all my sleeping ones hanging out there. How I chose to populate my paperhouse didn’t concern anyone else, no planning permission necessary, red tape to tie my laces together with. Just boundless opportunity for expression.
In 1988, Matthew Jacobs adapted a novel by Catherine Storr named Marianne Dreams, under heavy influence from Víctor Erice’s 1973 film The Spirit of the Beehive and Bernard Rose, who would go on to make Candyman four years later, took the directorial helm when translating his vision to the silver screen. It was released by Vestron Pictures and appeared at a time when the studio were losing their foothold in the marketplace; thus Paperhouse received only scant publicity and faded from sight faster than the word paperhouse could pass our lips. Years later, Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures would touch on key themes here and, again, the New Zealander would revisit this place for the equally stirring The Lovely Bones. But precious few souls will have visited Anna Madden’s personal vista through her very own eyes.
Ordinarily I would feel an overwhelming sadness when thinking of a film such as this being passed over so comprehensively. However, in the case of Paperhouse, it’s kind of encouraging to know that this is a special place, not invaded and convoluted by wearisome rationale. It’s there should you wish to make that journey, has been all along. But the majority of us will never follow its path and that’s okay with me as it has never been a numbers game. Whether Rose concurs is another matter; he would be within his rights to feel somewhat aggrieved that his labor of love only went on to gross just over $300k at the American box office. However, I would imagine that Candyman’s success softened the blow considerably. Today it is my aim to paint a simple picture, then leave it up to you to decide whether the legwork is ultimately worthwhile. For many of you I suspect I already know the answer.
11 year-old Anna is suffering from glandular fever and discovers an ability otherwise unobtainable. Some may consider her delirious as she drifts in and out of consciousness but, in these precious moments, she is afforded the chance to design her very own paperhouse. While tenuously cognizant she fashions this bleak palace and, the moment her young eyes fasten, she travels there. It’s not a one-time deal and consequent visitation enables furnishing of her residence. This stretches to cohabitancy and it is here that she meets fellow commuter Marc (Elliott Spears) after working him into the picture. Alas, she negated to gift him with any getaway sticks so his destiny remains sat by the window, gazing out wistfully.
He becomes Anna’s imaginary friend of sorts; a constant in her ever-evolving dreamscape and her trusted ally once the dynamic begins to change. She is mourning the absence of her father and he is away on a “long business trip” which may well not be entirely accurate. She longs for his return and, like any young girl who misses daddy, this informs her creation of an avatar in his honor. Problem is, she didn’t forget the legs this time, but did refrain from adding a smile. The tone changes, clouds roll in, and her paperhouse no longer offers the sanctuary it did before. This dark, domineering figure has no place in the dreams of one so young and his ever presence, along with her mother’s gradual spoon-feeding over why he went away, suggests a dark secret that she has kept locked away with good reason until now.
Had I mentioned that Anna despise boys? She thinks they’re icky and, let’s face it, she may have a point there. However, she feels solely responsible for Marc being rendered immobile and begins to consider that maybe she has been a tad harsh on his species as a whole. Her beef isn’t with boys on the whole as she estimated; but daddy’s nose certainly isn’t clean in all this. Jacobs’ tale is all about shades of dark and light, as well as the grey in-between where the two meet. Rose scribbles his prose a pictorial and ensures that the vista remains sparsely decorated. The old house stands surrounded by infinite open space but that freedom is snatched back the moment her father upsets the balance and it becomes insular and suffocating.
Charlotte Burke is utterly sublime as Anna and it staggers me to think that she has never worked on another film since. She’s not all cuddles and milk before bedtime and, instead, is a tomboy with a short fuse and no patience with regards to coming-of-age. However, she is needy and the young actress manages to convey three markedly individual characteristics effortlessly. Spears is similarly excellent as the imprisoned Marc and, devastatingly, he passed away shortly after filming. Meanwhile, American actress Glenne Headly, who plays Anna’s mother Kate, offers a particularly intriguing performance given that Rose had a change of mind two days before Paperhouse opened theatrically and she hurriedly dubbed an English accent which was overlayed in the eleventh hour. I have to say that I find it fitting that the sound of her voice is never live, given that her character is on the outside looking in anyway.
Mike Southon’s surreal cinematography makes the very most of its own simplicity, if that makes sense. If you want clutter then watch Zulu Dawn instead or tackle the first day of the Christmas sale at Bloomingdale’s. The visuals breathe and are accompanied, in no small part, by a poignant score from Stanley Myers and Hans Zimmer and effects courtesy of Alan Whibley, whose involvement with Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves four years prior is notable. That film also approached a similar topic and with unprecedented fortitude but focused on protagonist at a later crossroads of her development. The fact that I choose to mention the two in the same speech bubbles speaks volumes for Paperhouse. It scribbled an enduring picture in my own mind and I only hope that my words will encourage others to pick up their own crayons and go freehand.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10
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