The Well Review
Hester Harper (Pamela Rabe) is middle-aged and unmarried, living on a remote farm in New South Wales with her elderly father. One day, Hester brings the much younger Katherine (Miranda Otto) home as a live-in maid. Soon, a strong bond develops between the two women, but it soon becomes much darker as it develops…
The Well, with a screenplay by prolific adapter Laura Jones from a novel by Elizabeth Jolley, is an intriguing debut feature from British-born, Australian-raised director Samantha Lang. The film is an exercise in atmosphere more than anything else, with a plot – involving the hiding of the body of the victim of a car accident we see in a pre-credits sequence – being something of an afterthought to the character study. There are gothic overtones aplenty: the isolated house, an unhealthy atmosphere of sexual repression, and an overwhelmingly oppressive, louring look. Lang and her DP Mandy Walker (who went on to photograph Lantana) desaturate the colour and shoot virtually the entire film in a cold blue tone, with only a few coloured objects – notably Otto’s fair hair – standing out.
It’s not hard to work out that Hester is attracted to Katherine – “She’s for me,” she says, when the young woman arrives – but it’s carefully kept ambiguous as to whether this attraction is consummated or not. And it’s also fairly clear that Katherine is playing on this too, in one of several echoes of Dirk Bogarde and James Fox in The Servant. A lot of this is left for the viewer to infer. Lang and Jones avoid too much expository dialogue and simply invite us to watch the two very fine lead actresses, both of whom are more than capable of conveying a lot with just an expression or with body language. Just look at the close-ups of Rabe in the scene where she gives Katherine a birthday present. Not for nothing did this performance win Rabe an AFI Award for Best Actress. (Laura Jones and Michael Phillips also won, for Adapted Screenplay and Production Design respectively.) This film is virtually a two-hander, and the rest of the cast don’t make too much of an impression, though it does feature Genevieve Lemon, who played the title character in Jane Campion’s Sweetie.
Not all of this film works: the story is somewhat obscurely developed in places, and the ending fizzles out. Also, the film is so studied in its effects that it becomes airless. But the talent is certainly there.
The Well competed in Cannes in 1997. Apart from a London Film Festival showing the same year, and some screenings on Film Four, it has not had a commercial release in the UK. As far as I’m aware, this region-free release from Siren is the only DVD release of the film. The transfer is full-frame open-matte, with an intended ratio of 1.75:1 (estimated by eye). I also compared it with a taped-from-Film Four copy, which was letterboxed. Owners of widescreen TVs would do well to zoom the picture to 16:9. Having said all that, the transfer is a good one, considering the restricted palette the filmmakers had to work with. (In her interview, Mandy Walker says she originally visualised the film in black and white.) Blacks are solid (if bluish, like everything else) and there’s a minimum of artefacting. An anamorphic transfer might have been preferable, but this is certainly acceptable.
The soundtrack is a rather basic Dolby Surround mix. As the film is mostly dialogue-driven, much of the mix comes out of the centre speaker. Most of what is heard from the surrounds is Stephen Rae’s music score and some ambience, notably in the club scene that opens the film.
There are twelve chapter stops and regrettably no subtitles.
This DVD has a rather basic set of extras, clearly derived from the electronic press kit. The theatrical trailer makes the film look more of a thriller than it actually is. It’s also full-frame and runs 2:14. Then there are a set of interviews, done EPK style with a question appearing on screen as a caption followed by the subject’s answer. The interviewees are Samantha Lang, Sandra Levy (producer), Pamela Rabe, Miranda Otto, Mandy Walker, Michael Phillips and Anna Borghesi (costume designer). These interviews, many no more than soundbites, were shot full-frame on video, as was the 3:10 of behind the scenes footage provided.
The Well certainly won’t be for everyone, and it’s a first feature that doesn’t deliver all it promises. But it’s certainly worth a look, even on a basic DVD like this.