I give it: ****1/2
Starring: Sara Wiseman, Sia Trokenheim, Alistair Browning, Philip Brown, Jacqueline Nairn, Kevin J Wilson
Running time: 90 minutes
The story: Lydia Anderson lives alone in an enormous house in a small country town in New Zealand. She works locally and sews costumes for the local theatre group. All her life she has been secretly in love with Christian, the boy next door, but has never revealed her feelings to him. When the lovely, enigmatic Luella Miller arrives on her doorstep in desperate circumstances, Lydia takes pity on the young woman and invites her to stay. Her presence immediately disrupts the delicate balance of the town. She usurps the local theatre director's wife, takes the lead role in MacBeth and seduces him and awakens Lydia's dormant sexuality. A bitter jealousy develops between Lydia and Luella when Christian, along with the other men of the town, fall under Luella's spell.
As the townsfolk try to get rid of her, Luella learns of Lydia's secret love and plays matchmaker, delivering him to her in the most shattering way imaginable. The blood flows freely in the tragedy which follows, more devastating and controversial than any town gossip could hope for.
Against a familiar New Zealand landscape, whose presence played no small part in the narrative, the community, small and tightly knit, is portrayed in a vulnerable state of precarious social balance and it is no surprise, though certainly horrifying, to watch the fabric unravel with one catalyst, the arrival of Luella Miller (Sia Trokenheim)
In the lap of a grand two-storeyed house with a recent history which haunts the memories of the lone occupant, fantasies and delusions fester under the surface of an apparently community-minded individual with creative talent.
To echoes of Polanski, the footsteps through the corridors and stairways of the mansion develops a sinister flavour of what is to become, but is subtle enough to avoid the cliché of the horror genre. There is a glimpse of paranoia in this psychological thriller that frankly, has everything. Jealousy, love, tragedy, murder, deceit, an intriguing past, beauty and ugliness, violence and tenderness, it's all there, beautifully filmed in the shadows and recesses of warm polished banisters and empty dark hallways.
The complexity of Lydia's (Sara Wiseman) confused grip on reality is masterfully set in unique atmosphere of local theatre, a backdrop of costumes, within which Lydia dreams her pretend life and is carried away from the dreadful mundane existence of everyday.
She hires a Zorro costume, the epitome of a romantic hero, to her secret love. Her wardrobes are full of flimsy, glamorous costumes, foils to her personal feelings of inadequacy, the essence of her fantasy and the vehicle to her unrealised dreams of romance and sexual fulfilment. Luella wears them, plays the dangerous role of femme fatale and lives Lydia's dream.
In a glorious celebration of New Zealand talent in telling a small story with big impact, Luella Miller challenges those recent movies which have had so much acclaim, In My Father's Den, Rain, The World's Fastest Indian, for a place on the top shelf.
This is riveting stuff. Perfectly judged scene changes, flawless performances and a narrative line that never falters. There are surprises and twists right through to the end from a script that had an affection for the characters who took on a disturbing dimension of familiarity. Yes, this could be simmering just under the surface of our own communities, just waiting for an event that could topple the delicately balanced equilibrium.