Gothic fiction has had something of a resurgence in the last decade, with adaptations of classic novels including Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga, 2011), Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, 2011), Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel (Roger Michell, 2017), Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (The Turning, Floria Sigismondi, 2020) as well as TV shows like Penny Dreadful (2014-2016), which included the characters of Dr Frankenstein, Henry Jekyll, Dorian Gray and Mina Harker and biopics of Mary Shelley (Haifaa Al-Mansour, 2017) and Shirley Jackson (Shirley, Josephine Decker, 2020). California-based filmmaking couple Kevin Pontuti and Alexandra Loreth have now tackled Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s infamous short story The Yellow Wallpaper – a work that has been much referenced in the last year, with people trapped in rooms, staring at walls, descending into madness…
Jane (Loreth), husband John (Irish actor Joe Mullins) and their baby travel by horse-drawn carriage to the house John has rented for the summer for two reasons – to be near the town where he can be of use as a doctor and to give his wife the chance to rest and recuperate from the “nervous malady” she is experiencing (probably what we would now refer to as post-natal depression). A deliciously subversive moment occurs in the carriage that clues us into the fact that we won’t necessarily be able to trust what we see and hear in this film. Like all the best Gothic stories, this tale has an unreliable narrator – Jane herself – and what is about to unfold is very much from her point-of-view.
The setting and production design are probably the film’s greatest strengths and impressive for what must have been a small budget. Filmed in an Irish convent, the house and gardens are both stunning. The garden is almost as important of a location as the large bedroom with the titular yellow wallpaper – which is perfectly rendered from the book. The filigree metalwork on the bed, isolated in the middle of the oversized room, makes it look like a sacrificial altar and the score, at times, sounds like a church organ. The garden is clearly a place of refuge and sanctuary for Jane, which makes it all the more disturbing when the woman she believes to be behind the wallpaper escapes into this haven.
The sound (recorded by Gregory Burrowes) and score (by Robert J Coburn) are also effective in building atmosphere. The sounds of nature, such as birdsong, in the ‘secret’ garden are heightened and the score is tense and eerie. The sound of crickets at night are raised to deafening levels, making the soundscape of night more threatening than the day. Corruption does start to seep into the garden during the daylight hours as well, such as Jane finding a dead rodent with a desperate litter of babies. The editing frequently intercuts day and night scenes, to give the impression that one is bleeding into the other for Jane. The cinematography (by Sonja Tsypin) emphasises Jane’s isolation, centrally framing her or filming her from low angles which is dizzying and disorientating.
Loreth’s narration and line delivery in general (especially in the earlier parts of the film) is quite flat, bordering on monotone, which some people may struggle with. However, this is an authentic portrayal of how some people do communicate (and struggle to express themselves) when struggling with depression or mental health issues. It can be the absence of feeling and emotion, an emptiness inside that is so hard to cope with; “sometimes I feel as sick and tired as this old house.” A moment that takes place in the garden, of Jane saying that she’s going to lie down and then just lying on the grass right there, is a recognisable portrait of someone with depression. As the story and her ‘madness’ progresses, Loreth’s performance becomes increasingly physical and animalistic, with her crawling around, sniffing and clawing at the wallpaper.
A slow-burn feature-length adaptation of a short story which chronicles a woman’s mental state, while she is largely confined to one room, is not going to be to everyone’s taste. However, Gothic literature aficionados should be satisfied with how Pontuti and Loreth have translated Gilman’s masterwork to the screen. Visually rich, with a stunning location, there is much to feast your eyes on in The Yellow Wallpaper, as well as having an effectively creepy aural atmosphere. An impressive feature debut from this filmmaking duo, retelling a story that has much to say to a contemporary audience.
The Yellow Wallpaper is screening at Cinequest Film Festival 20-30 March 2021
We will have an interview with writer-director Kevin Pontuti and writer-actor Alexandra Loreth in Issue #4 of the JUMPCUT MAGAZINE (published 1 April 2021).