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EIFF: The Secret of Marrowbone review - a slow-burning, atmospheric, beautiful Gothic film

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Verdict: A true homage to the Gothic genre, and a return to thrilleresque and suspenseful horror.

This is a beautifully made directorial debut from Sergio G Sanchez, the screenwriter being The Orphanage and The Impossible. What makes The Secret of Marrowbone, as titled for its release in the UK, so interesting within the gothic genre is how much of the story is told in broad daylight. It is testament to the skill of Sanchez’s direction that danger and darkness are still felt, even set on the sunniest days and in the airiest of rooms.

George MacKay stars as Jack, the eldest of four children who have escaped from Britain and their father to seek refuge in their dying mother’s childhood home, near a small and unidentified town in the United States. The house itself provides a fresher take on the haunted house and the perfect location for Marrowbone, with its big windows and whimsical gardens, shattered mirrors and creaking floorboards. The look of the film is its highlight, beautiful and luminous, with natural lighting and muted colours that draws similarities between every frame and Vermeer paintings.

When their mother dies, wearied from their travels, she orders Jack to bury her and keep her death a secret until he turns 21, so that he may claim the house and legally become his siblings’ guardian. So begins an elaborate pretence with the locals, as the children pretend their mother is convalescing. 

There is thus a constant, oppressive and unsettling sense of dread and paranoia, as the audience shares in the characters’ obsessive fear that their father might find them, or that others might discover their secret. The mood is exhaustingly effective, evidence of great acting and cinematography.

Yet there are other secrets that the children are keeping that the audience is not let in on. When the film leaps forward by six months, mysterious changes occur: all the mirrors in the house are hidden or covered, some rooms are off limits, the youngest is terrified of a malevolent presence haunting their home, and Jack has a deep scar on his forehead.

Details are revealed slowly and deliberately, constructing a timeline of what may have happened during this six-month gap and building the mystery until a shocking conclusion that will undoubtedly draw some mixed reactions.

An unfortunate downfall in storytelling involves the women’s roles - Taylor-Joy and Goth are given little to work with. Jane (Goth) is merely the voice of conscience to her brothers and the stand-in nurturing presence once their mother passes, whilst Taylor-Joy’s Allie is inconsistent, as the character is adapted to suit the story’s needs.

Nonetheless, Marrowbone is a success. The film is slow and moody, bringing both an ambitious narrative and beautifully elegant cinematography to its audiences, and a more artful and old-fashioned take to the usual ‘horror’ genre.

The Secret of Marrowbone is out the 13th of July, distributed by Entertainment One. 

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