Between this and Netflix’s upcoming retread of The Haunting of Hill House, author Shirley Jackson is in vogue and I couldn’t be happier. Her works are complicated but haunting, even when they aren’t necessarily meant to be horrific. Such is the case with We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a novel that explores the emotionally crippling terror that comes from alienation and the mutual desire to conform and be an individual. The book, with its emphasis on two women blamed for all manner of things they aren’t responsible for, is prime material in this world of #MeToo and #TimesUp. Director Stacie Passon understands this with her film adaptation of Jackson’s novel, a quiet, contemplative film that examines the fear women have, to this day, to defer to men while trying to assert their own identities, and though the limitations of budget and acting end up weighing things down, it works to give audiences’ a taste of Jackson’s work.
Mary Katherine (“Merricat”) Blackwood (Taissa Farmiga) lives in a rambling estate with her older sister, Constance (Alexandra Daddario) and her Uncle Julian (Crispin Glover). The trio has isolated themselves, both due to Constance’s agoraphobia and because of the townsfolk who blame Constance for the murder of their parents. When their cousin, Charles (Sebastian Stan) arrives, and immediately takes a shine to Constance, it leads Merricat to do whatever she has to to make him leave.
Screenwriter Mark Kruger is remarkably faithful to Jackson’s source material. Jackson’s work is a simple story with formal articulation that can, at times, read like a novel for children yet enhances the staid, New England town of the ’60s it’s recreating. Kruger retains this – Merricat narrates the film to allow for Jackson’s poetic words to be heard – and it can lead to those unfamiliar with the novel to find the whole affair cold. Farmiga recreates Merricat as a girl who, despite being 18, comes off as remarkably younger with her pigtails and wide-eyed expression. It’s a role almost akin to Patty McCormack’s Rhoda Penmark in 1956’s The Bad Seed, but with a darker heart. Farmiga clomps to the town, hunched over, eyes searching like a rat in a maze. Yet she’s a girl reliant on the superstition inherent in her definitions of witchcraft – hammering books into trees and burying coins in the hopes that her wishes, or murderous fantasies, will come true.
Farmiga’s Merricat is the exact opposite of Constance, the raven-haired princess trapped in Blackwood manor. Daddario, long relegated to “hot girl” territory, actually gets an interesting part as Constance. Tied to the house like dog, her fear of what people think about her has lead to severe agoraphobia. Her only link to the outside world is Helen (Paula Malcomson), who urges her to come into town because she’s so pretty. Constance is the fount of normality for the Blackwoods, in contrast to Merricat’s weird love of the macabre and Uncle Julian’s obsessive reiteration of the night his brother and sister-in-law died. Daddario perfects the automatic smile Constance gives to everyone; she’s almost robotic in her ability to turn on her brightness, only showing her true colors when laying side-by-side with Merricat.
Though Merricat is the protagonist we follow, Daddario is actually the stand-out, giving us a woman trapped in a rote series of responses that have to be altered to fit whoever is near her. When “Cousin Charles” finally arrives, it turns everything upside down. For Merricat, Charles is an invader, attempting to take Constance away from her, but for Constance he’s the bridge to normality who might take her out of her shell, and that might be a good thing. Of course, Charles has his own motivations and his chronic screams of “Constance” hint at his own attempts to control the woman for his own selfish means. The trio of Merricat, Constance and Charles is akin to Sofia Coppola’s take on The Beguiled, particularly once Charles starts forcing Constance to deal with her sister. In Jackson’s world, men are wolves in sheep’s clothing whose politeness goes as far as a woman’s smile. Stan, to his credit, is delightfully smarmy without diverging into ham territory. Kruger’s script makes a significant change to the finale that is needed for a film audience, but seems at odds with the characters, especially as Jackson created them.
Alongside the script, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that this is a low-budget affair that demands something more. The Blackwood manor isn’t nearly as opulent and intimidating as one would suspect, and there’s a sense of smallness to everything, from the one or two sets shown in the town or the two rooms of the manor that are filmed. And while Farmiga, Daddario and Stan work, it’s hard not to think about what a bigger budget and A-list cast could have truly done with this material.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle shows off Stacie Passon’s directorial flair, and both Farmiga and Daddario are exemplary in roles that would be difficult to translate off the page. But the lack of a significant sense of prestige associated with the material leaves the film feeling like a 90-minute television movie airing on HBO which is fine, but could have been so much more.