Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The Thirteenth Tale' (2013)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Based on the 2006 novel by Diane Setterfield, BBC movie The Thirteenth Tale promises Gothic chills but delivers something much tamer, getting less and less intriguing as it goes along. Part of that may be a peril of adaptation, not only condensing the story into 90 minutes from Setterfield's novel but also losing the Gothic style she apparently wrote in (I haven't read the book). While the novel was compared to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, the movie doesn't capture any of that atmosphere, with the look of a genteel British TV drama rather than a creepy and foreboding ghost story. It's anchored by two great actors, but a lot of their work is sidelined in favor of extensive flashbacks that lose steam by the time they get to the story's big reveal.

Ubiquitous British TV/movie presence Olivia Colman is especially wasted in a role as what initially appears to be the main character, journalist Margaret Lea, who's summoned to the home of ailing, reclusive author Vida Winter (Vanessa Redgrave) to document her life story before she dies of cancer. Margaret holds her own secret from her past, but it's much less interesting than Vida's, and learning about it doesn't illuminate anything about her character. Mostly her function is to sit and look concerned while Vida tells her story, and to spend a bit of time poking around the ruins of Vida's childhood home, the sprawling estate known as Angelfield.

The bulk of the movie is devoted to Vida's story about growing up at Angelfield, where she was known as Adeline March and lived with her twin sister Emmeline (or so it appears). Madeleine Power plays the twins as children, and she makes them each disturbing and unpredictable in their own ways, as they grow up essentially without parents (their father is dead, and their heiress mother is confined to an insane asylum), raised by servants in the lavish but decaying family home. Power upstages the more well-known stars, making her segments the best parts of the movie. Vida, who refuses to allow Margaret to question her story, is set up as an unreliable narrator, but onscreen her account doesn't have the uncertainty that it would on the page. This is especially obvious when the story jumps ahead to Adeline and Emmeline as teenagers, and the truth of Vida's identity is blatantly telegraphed merely by the actresses playing the parts.

That's only part of the reason that the eventual twist falls flat; instead of adding a level of creepiness to the mystery of a potential haunting at Angelfield, the plot slowly lets the air out of it, revealing mundane explanations behind every spooky moment. Those explanations come from some dark places, but their presentation is straightforward and anticlimactic. Margaret gets the answers she came for, but despite the connection to her own past trauma, there's no emotional resonance for her or for the audience. Redgrave does more to sell Vida's need to unburden herself, but even her final throes are a bit underwhelming. In the end, Margaret just shrugs off the whole thing and goes off to write her biography, and the audience ends up similarly unaffected.

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