Stoker – Review

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Film Review by FilmFellaHenry – 8.5/10

India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is a solitary, brooding girl, ensconced with her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) within a remote country estate. After the untimely death of her father Richard (Dermot Mulroney), her mysterious uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) comes to visit, bringing life and intrigue into a home once stale. As India’s infatuation with uncle Charlie grows, his nefarious motives and her family’s dark past is slowly unearthed.

Considering Chan-wook Park’s previous praise for the creative freedom inherent in the South Korean film industry, his move to the US may seem a little odd. Stoker sees the celebrated director guiding a completely non-Asian cast for the first time, under a predominantly Western management (both Ridley and Tony Scott produced). And of course, for a film maker renown for his visual and narrative extremism, he also has the spirited viewpoints of the MPAA to contend with. As such, I was keen to see if this change in environment had impacted upon his ability to create fantastic films.

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Stoker’s narrative is certainly familiar territory for Chan-wook Park: revelling in dark, ugly character relationships is almost a calling card, as films like Oldboy and Thirst expound. For those familiar with Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt, the name ‘Uncle Charlie’ will resonate with foreboding… and with good reason too, as Charlie Stoker turns a bland, apathetic household into a hive of passion, reclaimed dreams and dark deeds. Fundamentally a character drama, Stoker breaks down the loyalty of blood, the notions of good and bad and ultimately what this means to our impressionable young protagonist.

It takes a brave sort to stand in a basement with Chan-wook Park

It takes a brave sort to stand in a basement with Chan-wook Park

The film is certainly dark and in many regards twisted. Watching a trio of characters systematically immolate themselves upon the fires of impossible fantasy does not usually seem like an appealing prospect, yet this is where Chan-wook Park’s magic really sparkles. For one, the film looks fantastic. Bringing on board familiar South Korean cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, who previously worked on Thirst, Lady Vengeance and I’m A Cyborg, was a good choice as the wonderfully shot visuals will iterate. Similarly, Clint Mansell’s score is both appropriate and beautiful, peaking with an emotion-filled piano duet between India and Charlie. So from an aesthetic, albeit slightly superfluous, point of view Stoker hits the right buttons.

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And when you dig down into the more substantial stuff, like story, themes and characters, Stoker still delivers admirably. While certainly macabre, the fascination over the choices India will make under the enigmatic Charlie’s guidance staves off any notion of Stoker becoming maudlin. And although the pacing is slow, a sharp 90min duration keeps events within their appropriate longevity. I cannot emphasise the value of this quality enough: so many directors get caught up in their own indulgence, that running times go out the window and potential quickly turns to celluloid diarrhoea.

Like this guy

Like this guy

The characters in particular were initially a major source of apprehension for me: I’ve always questioned the ability to judge a director’s ability to use actors when watching a film through subtitles. So much of a character’s ability to connect with an audience relates to the way they deliver dialogue, which is virtually impossible to ascertain when that’s communicated through a thin band of text. That’s not even taking into account translation issues and the fact that your attention is drawn away from all-important character expressions just to read what the hell they’re saying. For example, I believe that Min-sik Choi gave a sterling performance as Dae-su Oh in Oldboy; but what if he delivers lines like a Korean Danny Dyer? Conversely, imagine only understanding Orlando Bloom through subtitles… immediately he seems far less punchable.

That said, it’s kind of a moot point: Stoker is filled with stand-out performances right from the get-go. Wasikowska washes away the sin that was Alice In Wonderland with a brilliant portrayal of an isolated, introverted girl that has the potential for a very ominous character path. Kidman plays the emotionally mangled housewife with surprising alacrity, in a possible case of art imitating life. But for me, the real star was Matthew Goode, whose restrained intensity somehow managed to convey love and menace simultaneously. It’s a real shame that TV has predominantly been his mainstay since his notable performance in Watchmen: hopefully Stoker should go some way to addressing this slight.

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In summary, I highly recommend Stoker, for its atmosphere, visuals, simplistic yet intriguing story and foremost for the brilliant performances on show. Well done Chan-wook Park, well done.

About filmfellahenry
Film reviewer, script writer and occasional painter. Fan of Lumet, Aronofsky and Kubrick, with a good measure of early John Carpenter thrown in. Particularly like post-apocalyptic sci-fi, horror and fantasy film genres.

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