This film will go into limited release April 20, but in the meantime is available SundanceNOW, Cable VOD, Amazon Streaming, iTunes and XBox ZUNE.
The Moth Diaries debuted at the Venice Film Festival last year to lukewarm reviews, an adaptation of Rachel Klein’s debut novel. Given how highly that novel stands in my eyes, my expectations were perhaps too specific. On the other hand, that remains a habit I seek to break. For those who don’t know, the film centers on a Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) a 16-year-old student at a boarding school in Canada. Two year earlier, her father committed suicide and she still struggles to deal with that trauma. Returning to a new year at school, she gleefully re-unites with her best friend Lucie (Sarah Gadon). But across the hall a new student moves in. Ernessa (Lily Cole) is tall, thin, intense and mysterious. She meets Rebecca at a time when Lucie has just emerged from one of those huge bathtubs with claw legs in the bathroom the girls share. Lucie wears nothing but a huge white bath towel, almost a bath blanket. Ernessa notices. She notices everything.
As the school year progresses, Ernessa and Lucie grow close while Rebecca finds herself awash with jealousy. She notes odd details about her rival, including how the young woman never seems to eat. About this time in her gothic literature class she begins reading Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Her reaction echoes things from her own life. Slowly, as Lucie grows weaker and weaker, and as other tiny details add up, Rebecca comes to suspect Ernessa is in fact a vampire.
Let me make something clear. The novel rambles on quite a bit, in a way that works on a printed page but would make for a serious problem when translated to a screen. Make no mistake the screenplay does much to rectify this, and the overall film highlights rather neatly some of the more difficult-to-fathom details (like the title). Other bits are made more visual and some additions generally improve the forward nature of a film. Also, the cast give uniformly excellent performances.
I have three major criticisms of the film.
First, about the theme. The book recounts a terrible crisis in a young woman’s life in which she suffers a nervous breakdown. But the film re-imagines it as this same girl finding an enormous personal strength in the wake of tragedy, saving herself and eventually others. Having seen interview after interview with the actors who refer to the story’s ambiguity, I must wonder what they’re talking about? Klein’s novel seethes with ambiguity, so much so that at its end we don’t really know if Ernessa really was a vampire or not. Some readers walk away not entirely convinced the girl even exists! Not so here! We know Ernessa is undead. Rebecca (unnamed in the novel) may have gone through hard times but she certainly doesn’t need hospitalization. She’s quite sane, very much in control. We feel no sense she may be wrong. True, this film captures an enormous amount of nuance about the lives of Rebecca and Lucie and others — but we never wonder if any of this is delusional. Without that ambiguity, the story suffers.
Second, the film fails to create an atmosphere appropriate for the story. I would personally have liked a feeling of gothic mystery, but more importantly there’s no very strong sense of place. Nearly the entire story takes place in a school, one that used to be a hotel long ago. We see all kinds of little details about the school, but it never comes alive as a place. Teachers are only barely present. Hallways and architecture never assume a personality of their own. Interplay between teachers and students, students and other students, between teachers and teachers never gives us a sense of the whole. In the book, for example, Rebecca is subtly made to never forget she is Jewish. Students constantly sneak around and hide from the teachers–who play favorites. Virtually none of this can be seen. One side effect is the film remains too short! Less than an hour and a half! Without taking the time (another twenty minutes maybe) to establish this place both physically and psychologically, we the viewers lack a context with which to respond.
Finally a few words about the climax. Consider the setup. Rebecca, by now convinced Ernessa is a vampire and a murderer, notes the other girl goes into a locked room in the basement. At last Rebecca finds a way to open the door. In a corner of the room is an old steamer trunk, with Ernessa’s faded name on one of the stickers. Within the trunk is a bed of leaves and a diary. She reads it. She learns Ernessa committed suicide in this hotel all those years ago, in despair over her own father’s suicide. Rebecca has a horrified revelation! She’s been told a vampire wants someone to be hers forever. Ernessa didn’t come here for Lucie! She’s here for Rebecca!
So far so good. But what happens next? Rebecca goes and gets a can of something flammable, returns to the basement to find Ernessa asleep in the trunk. Rebecca then douses the trunk and strikes a match. As the trunk burns, Ernessa stands and screams. Rebecca just watches. She leaves the room, finishes writing in her diary while the fire department comes and willingly accompanies the principal when told the police have a few questions.
There’s more to it than that (some of it quite cool, let us be fair) but notice what’s missing? Conflict. Drama. Obstacles. Rebecca simply sets the vampire alight who doesn’t even try to defend herself. She doesn’t even have to sneak around, figure out how to do it, get away with stealing kerosene, etc. She shows neither doubt nor hesitation as she sets another person on fire–so no internal conflict either. Nor does she show any regret, any trauma for having done this.
Here is the greatest weakness in what remains overall an interesting vampire tale overall. It is as if James Bond defeated the bad buy by pressing a button in his car. Or if Wonder Woman walked up behind The Joker, hit him over the head with a bottle and end of story. Without some kind of tension, conflict surrounding the climax then that moment–the one we’ve been waiting for all along–becomes a dud. How much more exciting (for instance) if Rebecca was a little unsure of herself, and could barely bring herself to light the match? And as Ernessa screamed in agony, Rebecca ran away tears streaming down her face?
I’m not sorry to have seen this film. And there are moments genuinely praiseworthy. But in the end I was disappointed.