When Joe (Patrick O’Brien) returns home after an extended period of time away, he finds that his wife Emma (Kitty Colquhoun) has allowed her best friend, Sarah (Hannah Stanbridge), to move in with them. Put off by this development, Joe protests but to no avail. Things only get more complicated for Joe when he begins to obsess over Sarah, and the contents of her room, while simultaneously seeing and hearing things that may not actually be there.
Grant McPhee’s feature film, Sarah’s Room, is a stylish, yet slow paced, psychological drama. The depth of Joe’s plight is never fully apparent, though he is clearly in a constant state of suffering. Emma obviously wants things to be good between the two of them, but she also seems incapable, at least initially, of seeing just how much of a problem Joe is truly having with the situation, and it only gets worse.
Critically, where the film suffers the most is in its feeling of repetition. Joe does little during the day except obsess about Sarah, go out for walks and eventually end up at a bar. Throughout, the edit and camerawork offer up a sense of movement and energy, but nothing seems to actually progress forward so much as spin in circles. By the time things do come to a head for the film’s resolution, you wonder why it took as long as it did to get to that point.
Which underlines another issue, which is the film’s narrative ambiguity. I’m all for leaving things to an audience as far as interpretation goes, and I think enough hints exist throughout that you can probably get from A to B without feeling entirely lost, but the pervasive confusion and questioning throughout goes beyond compelling into sometimes infuriating territory. If the film is trying to put us into the same mindset as Joe, for all his mental tribulations, then it certainly succeeds. As an audience, though, is that enough to keep us engaged? When you couple this intentional ambiguity with the aforementioned repetition, you have a film that falls out of the scope of “interesting” and flirts with tedium instead.
But those are criticisms borne of an overall feel of the film. Performance-wise, the film is exceptional. While Patrick O’Brien’s Joe does little more than brood for most of the film, he still manages to give layers and life to the role; enough so that you don’t entirely give up on him and figuring out what is, or isn’t, going on. Stanbridge’s Sarah is likewise complex, and delivers more to her character than simply remaining a personality-less object of temptation for Joe (though the depth of her character, and motives and intentions, exists in that area of obstinate ambiguity). Rounding out the main trio is Colquhoun’s Emma, who brilliantly conveys a woman whose patience for her husband’s behavior is quickly growing thin.
In addition to the quality of the performances, I did enjoy the creative flourishes of the edit and camerawork. Often they created a strange balance between chaos and calm; they also served to give the film life when it was at its most meandering.
Overall, I think there is much to like within Sarah’s Room, but I think it makes full engagement with the material difficult. Too often the film feels like it is spinning its wheels, and when it does wrap up and you look back, you realize the narrative journey it took you on was actually very short, all things considered.
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