Duration: 99 minutes
Director: Kevin Pontuti
Writer: Charlotte Perkins Gilman (short story), Kevin Pontuti & Alexandra Loreth (screenplay)
Starring: Alexandra Loreth, Joe Mullins
By Caz Armstrong
Often, the argument “it wasn’t as good as the book” is based on the fact that the depth and nuance of beloved works can’t be fully replicated in a different medium. However, this adaptation of “The Yellow Wallpaper” (2021) directed by Kevin Pontuti, is not as good as the book because it strains out most of the feminist meaning and leaves us with the dregs.
Without the underlying foundation it is left so weak it struggles to stand on its own, for filmic as well as narrative reasons.
First published in 1892, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a chilling psychological short story by feminist writer and lecturer Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It draws on mental health and men’s infantilising control of women to identify patriarchy and women’s domestic captivity as the cause of their socioeconomic problems.
In the original short story the unnamed protagonist is taken by her husband to a remote colonial mansion in the hopes that fresh air and lack of stimulation will cure her “temporary nervous depression” and “slight hysterical tendency.”
In the book she is practically a prisoner. She is discouraged from all creative and intellectual endeavors lest they overwhelm her fragile mind. She becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper in her room, seeing a figure creeping behind the pattern, trapped like she is. In a twist of perspective she becomes one with the figure, both trapped and free at the same time and mentally completely broken.
However, in this adaptation the protagonist Jane (Alexandra Loreth) unravels with very little cause. She becomes obsessed with totally inanimate wallpaper and is seemingly haunted by guilt surrounding child loss. Meanwhile her husband John (Joe Mullis) is a strict but largely absent figure.
The liberties taken with the story create a toothless version which misses the fundamental point. The imagery of the creeping figure behind the wallpaper has been replaced by images of metal bars in an attempt to show she feels trapped. But what she is trapped by is of enormous fundamental importance and needs to be called out.
She is trapped by the wallpaper and the wallpaper is patriarchy. That’s the cause of her breakdown and that’s why this is such an important feminist text.
“I am quite sure it is a woman. By daylight she is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still.”The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
We need meaning if we are to be affected by the action and this film drags its feet in places, leaving us frustrated at the lack of substance.
Another uncomfortable change here is the focus on child loss. The suggestion is that some tragedy has befallen a child and that triggered her breakdown. Again, the breakdown is caused by her entrapment by men, so to suggest that guilt tied to motherhood and child loss is the cause of her problems does a huge disservice to Perkins Gilman’s work.
“I … am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again.The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Personally, I disagree with their ideas.
Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.
But what is one to do?”
Unlike more sedate period pieces, the camera is handheld and fluid to the point of shaky. It emulates an unstable mind, that much is clear. But by using this technique the entire way through there is nowhere for the escalating instability to go, visually speaking. The point about her entrapment being the cause of her breakdown, not the result, is therefore lost.
There is a lot of close-up work which aims to centre Jane’s inner mind. It’s a shame that we don’t get to see more of cinematographer Sonja Tsypin’s skills though. There are very few points where she is allowed freedom from the close-up-shaky-cam stylistic choice.
In particular the colour palette is very bold. The luscious greens of the gardens contrast with the infectious mustard yellow that coats everything in the bedroom. The costuming and lighting all support the punchy colour scheme and is a real strength of the film.
It was particularly galling to see that the director chose to show the protagonist’s breasts in lengthy shots not once but twice. I expect that nakedness was intended to show how Jane has lost all upright decorum, becoming vulnerable. But it’s unnecessary, distracting, and deeply ironic given the source material.
Overall there are some good points to the film, they just struggle to get out. The colour palette and the calmer aspects of the cinematography are great. The fact that the film was crowdfunded is a testament to people’s appetite to see this story.
Unfortunately the fundamentals of what makes the original story such a masterful feminist text have been stripped away and the film is much weaker for it. Gone is the slow creep of an unravelling mind, and in its place we have instant madness and constant shaky-cam. Gone is the examination of patriarchal society’s treatment of women and instead we have motherhood guilt. The cause of her madness is ignored and the importance of the titular wallpaper is diminished.
The shell of a film which is left is painfully slow and meandering. Frustratingly devoid of meaning, this is a film that should be applauded for taking a swing but unfortunately it completely missed.