If one were to examine the career of British director Bernard Rose the impression of ‘cult filmmaker’ may rear its affable head inside of the readers critically conscious mind. A title linked to that ever-loving key phrase cult is one that most certainly should not cause shame or inhibition creatively despite the baggage often associated with such labeling. In this instance however one must look past the stereotypes that can spring to mind when dealing with the perceptions of a cult film and discover the merits of this uniquely talented storyteller, gifted with a keen eye for fantastical imagery. Rose’s “Paperhouse” transcends the shallow reservations British audiences would appear to have earned from viewing, or should I say not viewing, films deemed as ‘fantasy’ in genre. What we are offered instead from such perceived notions is a truly captivating, imaginative and stomach-churning world for us and the story’s cast of characters to explore in.
Paperhouse follows the adventures of Anna Madden (Charlotte Burke), an eleven year old schoolgirl who one day becomes sick with glandular fever. Whilst in bed she passes the time by drawing a series of crude images in a school book until, when asleep, she begins to enter the world she has drawn in her dreams. As Anna’s understanding of such bizarre events begins to become more clear she decides to draw a boy inside the house she has assembled on paper. The boy, Marc (Elliot Spiers), is unable to use his legs and although is untrustworthy of Anna’s offering of friendship the two eventually begin to form a bond that is only made stronger when a nightmarish creature from Anna’s past inexplicably invades the dream world she has created.
Such a premise is rich for visual interpretation and Rose leaves no stone unturned in showing us his vision of a child’s creative imagination. The meditative quality of the world inside Anna’s mind becomes eerily welcoming once we realize the power Anna holds within her pencil. Many of the sets, although basic, keep the illusion of such a universe held together, with several interiors of the house looking as if they were made from paper mache. But the ingenuity the film’s production crew placed into the making of such basic locations exciting and stark later on becomes easily frightening. Hans Zimmer and Stanley Meyers electronic soundtrack is something out of a Harold Budd nightmare and runs perfectly in tandem with Mike Southon’s cerebral cinematography. The distinctions between Anna’s real world and the paperhouse she talks to Marc in are visually very sharp and detailed. Rose’s portrayal of a Britain from the 1980’s is also never questionable or unrealistic, quite the opposite in fact. But the dilemma Anna faces later in choosing which world to dedicate herself to is made all the more difficult because of it.
Charlotte Burke’s performance as the stubborn yet likable Anna is an impressive feat, reminding me of a prepubescent Tracy Beaker without as much shouting thankfully. However the real star of Paperhouse deservedly goes to young actor Elliot Spiers who gives a touching performance as a tormented and cynical child, trapped inside this empty world Anna accidentally placed him in. Spiers’ convincing portrayal of a confused and lonely child works wonderfully with Burke’s seemingly natural stubbornness. It makes writing this all the more difficult when I discovered the tragic events that unfolded just a few short years later when Spiers suffered an allergic reaction to an inoculation that would be responsible for his death in 1994. Such a performance is only made all the more special on repeated viewings from this gifted child actor. Paperhouse is somewhat of an anomaly in British cinema, particularly during a decade of arts budget cuts and a decline of the film ‘industry’ nationwide. Rose not only has created distinct visuals and a uniquely compelling universe for us the viewer to venture in, but has also given us two performances from clearly talented actors that are as intriguing to observe as world they occupy.