DIRECTED BY: Bernard Rose
FEATURING: Charlotte Burke, Elliott Spiers, Glenne Headley, Ben Cross
PLOT: Bedridden from an illness, young Anna experiences recurring dreams of a house in a field—a house, she soon realizes, that changes corresponding to the drawings she makes.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Applying an overlay of stark realism to the classic Wonderlandian formula of a child immersed in their own imagination, Paperhouse brings the essence of Lewis Carroll’s classic tale of weirdness into the world of the lower-class, late-20th-century childhood, and makes it all the weirder for its dreariness.
COMMENTS: Four years before rising to international attention (and then abruptly falling out of it again) with the horror classic Candyman, director Bernard Rose would helm this loose adaptation of Catherine Storr’s children’s novel Marianne Dreams. Despite the high praise it received from Roger Ebert, the film flew largely under the international radar, and has yet to receive a DVD release outside Europe.
Drawing, like so many “weird” films before and after it, on a certain Alice in Wonderlandian spirit, the movie builds upon the versatile foundation of a child’s imagination, supplanting Carroll’s prim and privileged young Victorian with a rebellious young lower-classer whose world is London flats, government schools, and dysfunctional families. For all her premature cynicism, she yet clings to her childhood beliefs in fantasy, fairy tales, and happy endings.
As any child, and many adults, would naturally do, Anna attempts to escape her worldly concerns—which include an alcoholic father and a bout of fever—by retreating into her fantasies. But these dreams, we soon realize, are as tainted as the rest of her childhood, a fact communicated by the film’s distinctive set design. The titular paperhouse truly looks—in the most clinical sense—like what a child’s drawing of a house might look like if brought to life. It isn’t a pretty sight. Malformed and misshapen, Anna’s dream house is a hollow shell, empty of color, décor, architectural nuances, all those dull details a child would generally not concern herself with. As the woes of daily life continue to plague her, Anna’s attempts to draw some child-friendly charm into her paperhouse only transform it from dreary to sinister. An ice cream dispenser becomes a roaring, metallic industrial beast; an oversized Coke bottle seems sarcastically Warholian; and her attempts to draw her estranged father into the picture spawn a blind, raging monster.
From a filmmaking perspective, Paperhouse, despite (or, perhaps, because of) its limited budget, offers little to criticize. Rose’s direction is confident and purposeful; the set design is realized in a manner that wonderfully conveys the film’s central themes; Glenne Headley manages a convincing London accent; and Charlotte Burke and Elliott Spiers, despite their young ages, carry their leading roles with competence (though both of them, thankfully, had the good sense to get out of the film business before the ugly industry of child acting could consume them).
But perhaps the core of what makes Paperhouse so recommendable, and so weird, lies not in its technical execution, nor in its fantastical elements, but in its abnormal honesty. Looking past the “Alice” influences, we might see it as a more grounded prototype of such later films as Pan’s Labyrinth and A Monster Calls. Although she appreciates the draw of imagination and the appeal of escape into fantasy as much as the next child protagonist, Anna’s mind is far too preoccupied with, and jaded by, her worldly experiences to have time to conjure up elaborate, intricately detailed backdrops encrusted with CGI and Hollywood budgets. In this sense, the film might seem abnormally dreary for its subject matter; yet for that very reason it will also be, for many, far more relatable than similar works.
One can pick holes in anything, and there’s plenty that might be said about the notion that the romance between the two leads seems to happen for little reason other than that they’re a boy and a girl, or that the idealistic ending might jar with the rest of the movie’s more grounded tone. But as with the beloved tale of Alice, the plot is a secondary consideration to exploring the expanses (or in this case, the limitations) of a child’s imagination. Besides, one of the many things that Paperhouse does well is setting up a protagonist who deserves, at the very least, a happy ending.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“… has the stark landscapes and the obsessively circling story lines of a dream – which is, of course, what it is…. wisely never attempts to provide a rational explanation for its story…”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)