The Well
Director: Samantha Lang. Cast: Pamela Rabe, Miranda Otto, Paul Chubb, Geneviève Lemon, Frank Wilson, Steve Jacobs. Screenplay: Laura Jones (based on the novel by Elizabeth Jolley).

A semi-compelling, two-character chamber play that suddenly becomes a semi-compelling, quasi-supernatural thriller, The Well is a bifurcated film with each half as foreign to the other as the odd-couple women at the center of the action. Hester Harper (Pamela Rabe) is a tightly-coiled woman living on a farm with her enfeebled father (Frank Wilson) and a friendly admirer named Harry (Paul Chubb) who is so devoted in his attentions to Hester that he is essentially a third resident of the house.

As the film begins, after a brief opening sequence showing events that unroll later in the film, Hester has hired a pale, disheveled, impish young woman named Katherine (Love Serenade's Miranda Otto) to assist in the upkeep of the farm. We have no idea where Hester met Katherine, of whether or not Katherine is qualified for or even interested in the job, or indeed why on earth Hester would consider letting go their sturdy and long-employed housekeeper Molly in favor of this will o' the wisp. The ambiguities and possible meanings or motivations suggested by Hester's hiring of Katherine—is it loneliness? lesbianism? a rebellious tweaking of her crotchety father's sensibilities?—are sustained through the film, particularly in its first half, but I wonder if at some point more insight is required into their relationship than we are offered. Both women's perspectives on this new arrangement are kept so deliberately vague to the point of coyness, reminding us again that ambiguity is far more satisfying as a concluding note than as a method of general approach to the narrative.

Instead, in the script adapted by Laura Jones (A Thousand Acres, The Portrait of a Lady), Hester shuffles about the farm and hovers flutteringly in doorways while the younger woman forsakes her chores to dance with abandon to her beat-heavy, incongruous music. (Hester's clubfoot, with her long, taut braid, is director Samantha Lang's egregiously familiar shorthand for the woman's sexual repression and nascent neurosis.) Katherine, of course, gets very little work done on the farm, but then again, no one else gets caught in the act of much labor. Most of the food they eat follows the line of baked breads or fresh tomatoes, none of which their particular land seems designed to yield easily. The farm, then, exists as nothing more in this film than a convenient location in which Hester and Katherine may be sequestered from society, the better to be studied for their obviously opposed characteristics, and later propelled into the claustrophobic psychodrama that the filmmakers reveal from up their sleeves about an hour into the picture.

True, The Well is never uncompelling in either its first embodiment as a moody drama or its subsequent identity as a spooky, "what's that noise?"-type chiller. The problem is that the filmmakers shuck the first scenario so summarily to begin the mystery narrative—which involves a theft, the titular well, and a Diabolique-inspired body who may or may not be dead—that we cannot help but notice the artificial marionetting of their plot or their essential indifference to their characters. When Hester's father dies and she sells his farm, moving herself and Katherine to an even more secluded outpost in the rocky backcountry, we wonder what the women will do with the money or where their relationship might move once removed from the suspicious eyes of the older man. The script presents a flimsy idea that the women might travel abroad together, but suddenly the money disappears—and we realize, unmistakably, that those piles of bills were only ever introduced into the story so they could eventually be made to vanish. Thinking backward, we realize in turn that the father's death means nothing to the characters or the filmmakers except as the source of that money, and by further extension, that the father himself was never more than an arbitrary figure required for the structural purposes of mounting the eventual theft and ensuing eruption of distrust between these women.

Who is supposed to care about characters that the filmmakers do not care about? Who would invest anything in the end of a story that so utterly disregards its own beginnings? The Well boasts shimmering, nicely conceived photography by Mandy Walker, and the performances are adequate, but the soullessness of the project undermines it more and more as it continues. I keep reading comparisons between Lang's film and those of Jane Campion, which I assume to be motivated primarily by the coincidences of their mutual status as Australian women filmmakers. Outside of those qualities, however, and a shared sense for precise, shimmering visuals, the two filmmakers could hardly be more dissimilar. Campion's characters, from Sweetie to Ada McGrath to Isabel Archer, work themselves deeper and deeper into confused emotional states because they are pulled in so many different directions by the wild forces of nature: wanderlust, sexual longing, family obligations, aggressive suitors, the striving for individuality. Lang's characters are pulled by one force and one force alone...the mandates of schematic filmmaking and a hollow, uncompassionate script. C–

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