Film Review: Shirley Jackson Is Surprisingly Relevant

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, written by Mark Kruger (based on the novel by Shirley Jackson), directed by Stacie Passon. Produced by Further Films. Copyright 2018. (Seen September 22, 2018, at the LA Film Festival.)

Note: there are minor spoilers in this review.

Shirley Jackson is known for many things: the complexity of her female characters is one of them. Thankfully, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is yet another example, and despite having been written in 1962, is surprisingly relevant in a #MeToo world.

Merricat (Taissa Farmiga) and Constance (Alexandra Daddario) Blackwood are two sisters isolated in a mansion on a hill with their uncle Julian (Crispin Glover). We find out that six years ago, Merricat and Constance’s parents were poisoned with arsenic, presumably by Constance – although she was eventually acquitted. Julian had also gotten minor arsenic poisoning, but survived – albeit he now suffers from another illness that, while not directly named, resembles Alzheimer’s in Glover’s portrayal.

Constance has not left the house since the incident, and Merricat goes into the village once a week, where the Blackwoods are reviled by the townspeople, to get groceries and run a few errands. Merricat practices magic in order to keep Constance safe; Constance takes care of Uncle Julian; all while Julian is fixated on attempting to write his memoirs, focusing on the poisoning to an almost obsessive manner.

One day, they are visited by their cousin Charles (Sebastian Stan). Charles is presumably there just to help, but as the days turn into weeks, it’s clear that Charles has ambitions to take on the patriarchal role. He becomes friendly with Constance, even romancing her, with hints that he’s after the massive Blackwood fortune. Merricat is not happy with this at all.

As for the rest of the plot, let’s just say that — much as seen in Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” — people are not always at their best, and — much as seen in her novel The Haunting of Hill House — things don’t always go the way you expect them to.

The film is gut-wrenching in all the right ways: hard to watch, but impossible to turn away. This is one of those films that I hesitate to recommend, but boy howdy do I think you should see it. The movie is such a great allegory of how powerless women can be in society: as Charles steps in, the two sisters have no real way of fighting it. Merricat is forced to acting out, while Constance is trying her best to keep everyone happy. Meanwhile, as the film progresses, it’s heavily implied that the father had sexually abused Constance if not both daughters and that’s what caused his murder. Both Constance and Merricat are trapped in societal roles of politeness and femininity, and only by breaking out of those roles do they finally find peace.

Farmiga and Daddario are astounding as the sisters. Farmiga uses her entire body to embody an isolated young girl who is terrified of her world being upended. Meanwhile, Daddario plays Constance with a continual plastic smile that is so recognizable in the ‘maybe you should smile more’ vein. They have nowhere to turn but each other, and Passon’s directing lets you see that in full force.

The film itself is gloriously shot, with a cinematography that is a beauty to behold. It uses the closeness of the house in dichotomy to the sparseness of the Irish landscape where they filmed, giving it just the right agoraphobic feel.

This film is definitely going to be talked about, and deserves every bit of praise I can send it. I wish I could tell you when it opens nationwide or send you to the official website for more information, but it seems to not have either readily available. Definitely catch it when you can.

You can see more of Angie’s work and her social media connections over at her website.

{All images used courtesy Sapkar Public Relations.}

Note: this article was also published on Contents May Vary. Finally, in the sense of full disclosure, I was a screener for the LA Film Festival, but this was not one of the films I screened.

Post Author: Angie Fiedler Sutton

I am a writer, photographer, and all-round fangirl geek. I have done everything from data entry to managing, and I love a wide range of geek culture. In fact, when I can, I freelance, covering geek culture, entertainment, and the performing arts. I have been published in Den of Geek, Stage Directions, LA Weekly, The Mary Sue, and others. I also produce my own podcast, G33K Out with Angie Fiedler Sutton, where I interview geeky people about geeky things. You can see my work and social media connections over at my website angiefsutton.com.

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