The Secret of Marrowbone (2017)

The Secret of Marrowbone first published by Sight & Sound, August 2018

Review: Refugees from a monstrous father in England, Jack (George MacKay), Billy (Charlie Heaton), Jane (Mia Goth) and young Sam (Matthew Stagg) arrive with their mother Rose (Nicola Harrison) at a farmhouse on the American coast, hoping to leave the past forever behind. That summer the Fairbairn siblings, now renamed the Marrowbones, meet their neighbour Allie who, pretending to be the ‘Red Witch’, fits seamlessly into their imaginative play. Jack’s voice-over narration, read from an illustrated account that the children have co-authored about their strange life, states that from that very first day Allie (Anya Taylor-Joy, significantly of Robert Eggers‘ The Witch, 2015, but also of M. Night Shyamalan’s DID-thriller Split, 2017) “was already one of us”. This summer idyll ends, however, when the moribund Rose secures a promise from Jack that he will keep the family together, and her death secret, until, aged 21, he can become his siblings’ legal guardian. Six months later, in Nixon’s 1969, the events of Secret of the Marrowbone are mostly removed from the real world. Hidden away in their home, the Marrowbones have built around themselves a children’s playground of fortress tents, board games, rituals, rules and half-truths (to protect the innocent), with Jack, as the eldest, holding all the keys. Only Jack can ever leave this closed environment, occasionally picking up provisions from the town’s store (where his arrival is accompanied by a staticky monochrome glimpse of the moon landing on an old television set), or enjoying cliffside trysts with Allie – whom at night he also contacts remotely from home via morse code and a flashing torchlight.

If this sounds like a jolly boy’s own adventure, it also comes with decidedly gothic shadings. For this old dark house is haunted by grief, guilt, a ghost, dread (of the returning father) and the deep scars of past trauma (whether the cracks in the mirrors, the holes in the walls and windows, or the wide gash on Jack’s forehead). As property lawyer Tom (Kyle Soller) risks smashing open the family’s secrets, the film delivers an ingenious and deftly handled twist whose ramifying involutions might not at first fully sink in. First-time director Sergio G. Sánchez, who had previously scripted Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage (2007) and The Impossible (2010), here reveals – or is it conceals? – all his greatest strengths as a writer, exploiting ambiguities of multiple perspectives to let out all his story’s secrets while also, ultimately, keeping them close. At the final credits, viewers might flatter themselves that they have grasped just what kind of reality has lain buried all along deep within the fantasy structure of the film’s picture-book story, but further reflection might reveal instead a distorted image – as if seen in a cracked mirror – requiring a more leisurely unravelling to dig to the true extent of the narrative’s tragic madness and horror.

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Synopsis: 1968. Jack reads from a storybook-style diary how he and his younger siblings Billy, Jane and Sam, and their mother Rose arrive at Rose’s old farmhouse in America, after fleeing Rose’s husband, a serial abuser, thief and murderer. The siblings spend the summer with neighbour Allie. Ailing Rose reveals she still has her husband’s stolen money in a box, and makes Jack promise to conceal her death so he can keep the family together until he becomes their legal guardian. Their father returns, and Jack immures him in the attic to protect the others. Six months later, only Jack ever leaves the house, whether to get provisions or to meet Allie. Sam believes there is a ghost in the house, and is scared of the cracked, sheet-covered mirror on the stairs. When local property lawyer Tom visits, Jack gets Jane to forge Rose’s signature, and pays Tom with the father’s ‘cursed’ cash. Billy drops the cashbox down the chimney into the bricked-up attic. Tom reveals the criminal history of Jack’s father to Allie. When Tom blackmails the family, Billy climbs into the attic for the cashbox, and discovers the father is alive. Allie reads the diary. At the house, she realises Billy, Jane and Sam died 6 months earlier, and that only Jack’s multiple personality disorder is keeping them ‘alive’ together. With Tom now murdered, the father (or is it just deluded Jack?) is about to kill Allie in the attic. Some time later, Jack lives happily in the house with Allie and the three siblings.  

Anton Bitel