Dramatic and satisfying on the whole, “The Well” is firmly in the tradition of other successful Aussie film debuts by women that have dealt probingly with femme relationships, including Jane Campion’s “Sweetie,” Emma-Kate Croghan’s “Love and Other Catastrophes” and last year’s Cannes Camera d’Or -winner, Shirley Barrett’s “Love Serenade.” This mature first effort from 29-year-old Samantha Lang should have a career at fests this summer and has an outside commercial shot in specialized situations internationally.
Adapted by prolific screenwriter Laura Jones (“The Portrait of a Lady,” “An Angel at My Table”) from a novel by Elizabeth Jolley, pic is essentially a two-hander, a probing psychological drama involving two lonely, sexually unfulfilled women, one middle-aged, one much younger, unfolding in a bleakly beautiful rural setting. Elements of Joseph Losey’s “The Servant,” with the sexes reversed, are the starting point for a tragic drama whose richly evocative images seem at times to be influenced by Japanese cinema (Kaneto Shindo’s “Onibaba” comes to mind, though Lang’s film eschews the explicit details of that classic).
Lang and Jones kick off with a dramatic pre-credits sequence that instantly contrasts the hedonistic, youthful Katherine (Miranda Otto), seen wildly dancing solo at a crowded small-town shindig, with her lame, drab, tired friend Hester (Pamela Rabe), who watches from the sidelines. The older woman drags the younger one away to a four-wheel-drive vehicle, which Katherine insists on driving, against Hester’s urgings, along a narrow country road by night until she collides with something, or somebody, on the road, and the screen goes black.
Film proper begins after the credits with the arrival of Katherine at the isolated property run by Hester and her ailing father, Francis (Frank Wilson). The young woman has signed on to work as a maid, but is soon turned off by the amount of hard work she’s expected to undertake, by the isolation of the place and by the lack of a TV (Hester spends most of her time playing classical music on the piano).
Hester, however, has decided, on the briefest acquaintance, that she needs Katherine around the place: Perhaps it’s a sexual attraction or a yearning for friendship, or just Katherine’s life-affirming youthfulness, but whatever the reason, she manages to persuade the girl to return, promising her she will be given less work in the future.
Soon after, old Francis dies (while helping to celebrate Katherine’s birthday), and, egged on by the increasingly powerful servant, Hester decides, against the advice of her friend and adviser Harry Bird (Paul Chubb), to sell the farm for cash. The women move into a small cottage on the edge of the property and plan to spend the money on a trip to Europe and the U.S.
Hester blossoms as the ill-matched pair grow closer, but she receives a jolt upon learning that Katherine, who seems to have no family, has invited her best friend, a girl who sends her intimate messages, to visit her when she’s released from prison.
After a leisurely buildup in which the filmmaker takes time to chart with precision and clarity the contrasting characters of the protagonists, the film returns to the opening sequence. Katherine is unhinged by the accident, and it’s Hester who laboriously deposits the corpse (unseen by the audience) into the dried-up well adjacent to the cottage. Only after the body is out of the way do the women discover that all the money received from the sale of the property has been stolen. Is the man in the well the thief, and, if so, can they recover the money from the well?
The last third of the film builds on these tantalizing notions to create a genuinely eerie depiction of a relationship torn apart by guilt, fear, suspicion and encroaching madness, with hints of the supernatural thrown in. Characterizations are complex and handled with rare intelligence in this most accomplished debut.
The two central performances contribute enormously to the success of “The Well.” As the frustrated Hester, Rabe perfectly conveys how a lifetime’s inhibition and isolation melts in the presence of the beautiful, wild young woman who has rocked her little world — it’s a controlled, subtle performance, and a most moving one. No less successful is Otto, who demonstrated in last year’s “Love Serenade” that she was a remarkable actress and advances here with an astonishing portrayal of a thoughtless, selfish youth who looks as though butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.
The supporting players have only minor contributions, with Chubb cleverly conveying a lifetime of frustration as the disappointed Harry.
The film’s visual design is striking. Mandy Walker, cinematographer of “Love Serenade,” provides a very different palette here, emphasizing the subdued grays, greens and blues of the slightly eerie, rocky landscape outside the lonely houses where these people’s limited lives unfold. Use of mostly classical music is also apt.
“The Well” moves sedately in the early scenes, but necessarily so, to explore the complex world of its protagonists. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s clearly the work of a mature and talented new filmmaker.