Earlier this week, my colleague Kevin Lever reviewed Netflix’s spooky new series The Haunting of Hill House, based on the Shirley Jackson novel of the same name. I suppose with October just around the corner, it’s only right that I continue the trend with a review of another adaptation of her work: director Stacie Passon’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Though it doesn’t quite lean into the horror genre, it nonetheless presents an effectively unsettling atmosphere rife with suspense, paranoia, and a tinge of witchcraft.
The plot concerns the egregiously wealthy Blackwood family, or at least what remains of it. Six years prior to the start of the film, an arsenic-laced sugar bowl led to the deaths of patriarch John Blackwood, his wife Ellen, and his sister-in-law Dorothy; it nearly claimed John’s brother Julian (Crispin Glover) as well, who exists now as a broken, ailing man. The only ones who remained unblemished were sisters Mary Katherine (Taissa Farmiga), known more commonly by her nickname “Merricat”, and Constance (Alexandra Daddario). Such an incident caused widespread suspicion of the girls, but after a lengthy trial neither were found guilty. They now live in seclusion with their uncle on the grounds of their massive estate (the so-called “castle” in the title), which towers above a local New England town, much to the disgust of the residents. However, when their deceptive cousin Charles (Sebastian Stan) arrives out of the blue, their odd but manageable lifestyle is threatened.
The main cast members are all excellent. Told primarily from Merricat’s point of view, Farmiga’s reserved presence, hunched shoulders, and awkward mannerisms all lend to an appropriately oddball character. Her social ineptitude is partly a product of her upbringing, and partly a product of her naturally just being kind of a weirdo. She believes in spellcasting and witchcraft, and constantly buries (valuable) things in hopes of warding off evil. She is especially distrustful of Charles, whom she sees right through from the beginning. Stan is known mostly for playing Bucky in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where he’s charming and generally enjoyable, but it’s still a fairly one-note role. Here he’s allowed to flex more of his dramatic chops, while still utilizing his innate charm. He is both the villain and the everyman; we (hopefully) don’t relate to his greediness, but he brings up good points about the unhealthy household.
It’s Daddario and Glover who give the best performances though, perhaps due to the fact that they play the most damaged characters. Constance suffers from intense agoraphobia, which she is trying her best to combat. In one scene she takes great pride in how far she manages to walk on the estate. She is also the de facto chef of the household, constantly in the mansion’s beautiful kitchen. Daddario brings an intense innocence to the character, her wide eyes and soft voice in direct contrast to Farmiga’s daring and capable Merricat. Or perhaps not innocence, but denial, as she always seems like she’s more aware of things than she lets on. And Glover, who has made a career out of playing eccentric characters, slots right into Uncle Julian’s shell of a persona. His wheelchair-bound ramblings and dissonant mind—he frequently confuses Charles for his dead brother, and sometimes refers to Merricat as being dead, even when she’s sitting right next to him—are highlights of the film.
A couple aspects that deserve to be mentioned are the cinematography and production design. Lensed by Piers McGrail, the verdant estate grounds are captured beautifully, their wide green lawns and forested walkways brought to life with a striking, almost unnatural gleam. The same goes for the ornate interiors, with extravagant furnishings adorning pretty much every frame. It all creates a heightened aesthetic, of this world but also adjacent, akin to something like A Series of Unfortunate Events for example. I’m not sure what the budget was for the movie, but I suspect the results are punching far above their weight. It’s truly a gorgeous movie to look at.
The structure is divided into chapters, each representing one day in a week. As Charles’ presence continues to unnerve Merricat, he has the opposite effect on Constance, flattering her with compliments and stories of his travels across Europe. It all culminates in an explosive climax, involving an angry and slightly cartoonish mob, that exposes the duplicitous nature of humanity.
Seeing as I’ve never read the book, I’m not sure how We Have Always Lived in the Castle fairs as an adaptation, but I can say that as a film it’s real solid. It evokes a great sense of isolation and otherworldliness without ever becoming too outlandish, and offers a distinctly compelling tale of female agency in the face of suppressive 1950’s culture. With lush visuals and a dedicated cast, it’s an easy film to recommend.