Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke face down the spooks in Winchester.
Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke face down the spooks in Winchester.

MOVIE REVIEW: Helen Mirren’s new role stranger than fiction

WINCHESTER (M)

 

**1/2

 

Director: Michael and Peter Spierig

 

Starring: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook

 

Verdict: Trigger-happy horror film misfires

 

THIS haunted house thriller, directed by Queensland's Spierig brothers, unintentionally supports the adage that truth is stranger than fiction.

The story of American heiress Sarah Winchester (played here by Helen Mirren) is an extraordinary one.

Wracked by grief at the loss, first of her baby daughter, then her husband, the wealthy widow, who inherited $US20 million and a 50 per cent share of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, left East Coast society behind in the 1880s to strike out on her own in San Jose, California.

There she led a reclusive life devoted almost entirely to the construction and renovation of a Queen Anne revival mansion.

The project consumed Winchester for 38 years, until her death from heart failure in 1922.

With its labyrinthine hallways and staircases that lead nowhere, the architectural catastrophe has since become a popular tourist attraction.

 

Jason Clarke and Helen Mirren give it their all, but there’s no saving Winchester.
Jason Clarke and Helen Mirren give it their all, but there’s no saving Winchester.

 

It is reputed to be one of the most haunted houses in America.

According to popular mythology, Winchester became convinced that her family was cursed by the ghosts of those who had been shot by the company's rifles.

Winchester House's idiosyncratic layout was reputedly dictated to her by their spirits.

Historians and biographers contest this version of events. But the Victorian recluse did hold night-time seances in one of the Winchester House's peaked turrets and she delivered new plans to her foreman in the morning.

All of which suggests ample raw material for a rollicking good yarn - especially with Dame Mirren at the helm.

But although the Oscar-winning actor lends a certain gravitas to the role, the screenplay doesn't give her much to work with.

Most of the narrative leg work is undertaken by Jason Clarke's laudanum-addled doctor, hired by the company to evaluate Winchester's mental fitness.

Clarke is a charismatic screen presence, but his character, too, is underwritten. Sarah Snook, who won an AACTA for her gender-swapping role in the Spierig brother's time-travelling sci-fi thriller Predestination, rounds out a strong lead cast as Winchester's niece.

 

Sarah Snook reteams with her Predestination directors, the Spierig brothers, in Winchester.
Sarah Snook reteams with her Predestination directors, the Spierig brothers, in Winchester.

 

The Spierigs have built their reputation on genre films that conjure up convincing alternative worlds (Undead, Daybreakers.)

But on a tonal level, Winchester is strangely off-key.

Bruce Spence's naturally lugubrious butler appears to have walked in from another horror film altogether.

And given Angus Sampson's close association with the Insidious franchise, I kept expecting his impassive turn-of-the-century foreman to break character.

Winchester gives a curious story the cookie cutter treatment, relying heavily on jump scares and classic horror tropes to hold its audience's attention.

While the Spierigs treat their subject with respect, there is little insight or imagination in their version of events.

Winchester opens tomorrow.