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The Boston Phoenix Well Power

Samantha Lang's still waters run deep

By Peter Keough

AUGUST 3, 1998:  Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the water drains counterclockwise down under, but Australian women directors seem uncannily attuned to the perverse, hidden workings of the soul. Like the better work of Jane Campion, Gillian Armstrong, and Jocelyn Moorehouse, director Samantha Lang's debut feature, The Well, plumbs the depths of passion and pathology with superb performances and exquisite, idiosyncratic style. A tale of suppressed desire and convoluted love, of atmospheric suspense and archetypal melodrama, it triumphs on nearly every level.

Based on a novel by Elizabeth Jolley, the story takes place in an Outback made bleaker by bleached-out colors; both the threadbare, gimcracked interiors and the chthonic landscapes look like watercolors done in drained shades of viridian. The desolate terrain mirrors the parched personality and meager affect of Hester (an intense and subtle Pamela Rabe), a dry stick of a spinster hobbled by a stunted foot, by her crapulous father, Francis (Frank Wilson), and by the responsibilities of their sprawling, unproductive farm. She arrives one afternoon with the mysterious Katharine (Miranda Otto, again, as in Love Serenade, playing half of a Down Under odd couple), an alternately meek and uninhibited ragamuffin recently released from a reform school. "I've brought Katherine, father," Hester announces as dad unceremoniously lifts the visitor's skirt, "but she's for me."

In what capacity, however, is unclear. Ostensibly hired to help with the housework, Katherine insinuates herself into a position of power and intimacy, advancing herself from scrubbing floors to lounging in bed. Chaotic, vulnerable, and perversely innocent, she beguiles Hester, tapping into her repressed passion. Their strange mating dance is one of the most original and insightful aspects of the picture. It begins tentatively when Katherine wanders into the parlor where Hester is playing Mozart stiffly on the piano. She coaxes Katherine into singing along, and the moment of bonding briefly breaches Hester's reserve and Katherine's perhaps disingenuous shyness.

Their growing closeness proves a challenge to the male dominance of the household; though overlooked by the ga-ga Francis, it arouses the suspicions of Harry Bird (Paul Chubb), the stern overseer of the farm's finances. He looks on helplessly as Katherine's birthday party escalates into dancing and loud music from her new hi-fi -- a gift from Hester -- and ends with Francis dropping dead in the midst of his cake and champagne. Now in control, Hester sells the ranch and with the nest egg bankrolls good times for herself and Katherine.

The party ends when Hester, against her better judgment, lets Katherine take the wheel of her pick-up one night and Katherine promptly runs down a stranger. Hester dumps the body down a well, and no sooner than you can say "fruit cellar" than their relationship takes on a Psycho-like turn, with side trips to Polanski's Repulsion, that culminates in a purging storm and deluge. Pathetic fallacy becomes the dominant mode -- or perhaps "phallusy" would be more accurate, as the male, female, and fertility metaphors get a bit turgid, not to mention the motif of a waterlogged subconscious. Although haunting in its use of sound and edgy imagery, this indulgence in psychosis, symbolism, and the supernatural bogs down the movie and the performances. In other words, Lang and her characters go to the well too often.

It's a minor lapse, however, and one that in many films would be considered a virtue. For the most part the narration unfolds with almost trancelike obliqueness (a circular framing device excepted, which may be too clever for its own good), with plot turns underscored by such details as a set of keys, Hester's unfortunate built-up shoe, and, of course, the ominous well. Foremost, though, is the way Rabe and Otto limn one of the most ambiguous relationships in recent cinema. Whether sharing fits of laughter, usually at the expense of poor Harry, or swapping the roles of Bonnie and Clyde while re-enacting scenes from the movie, their performances evoke the mystery, folly, and nobility of lonely souls seeking each other. With The Well, Lang taps into the mystery of desire and despair at its source.

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