Director Kelsey Egan's feature length debut makes a great first impression. A voice sings an eerie lullaby as we're introduced to the titular Glasshouse; a real life Victorian glasshouse surrounded by lush green plant life. The peaceful tableaux is shattered, however, when a rugged trespasser is shot on sight. Glasshouse is a sci-fi thriller wrapped up as a Gothic fairytale that explores themes of memory and trauma. Unfortunately you'll soon forget much about the film after the credits roll.
A neurochemical within the atmosphere has ravaged the world, known here as The Shred, destroying the memory of anyone exposed to it. Within an airtight glasshouse resides a family who enact rituals in honour of preserving memory. Leading the family is Mother (Adrienne Pearce) who guides and watches over the free-spirited Bee (Jessica Alexander), the pragmatic Evie (Anja Taljaard), Gabe (Brent Vermeulen) who was exposed to The Shred, and the young but headstrong Daisy (Kitty Harris). Also in the family is Luca, who the others are eagerly awaiting his return from the outside world. Their way of life is shattered though, when Bee lets a stranger (Hilton Pelser) into their sanctuary.
On a technical level Glasshouse mostly works. The production design in particular feels distinct, fusing the typical makeshift post-apocalyptic style with Victorian fashion, and the cinematography offers a dreamlike look that works in line with the themes explored. The location itself, which is in fact the Pearson Conservatory situated in South Africa, feels unique – especially with the additional fauna and protection surrounding the building.
The same can't be said for the rest of the production, however. The score, whilst it nicely reflects the eerie gothic vibe, feels obtrusive, playing in nearly every moment of the film, and the dialogue and writing feels off. But a strange effect happens over time, as the wooden writing and performances start to work in the film's favour. It creates the sense that maybe the whole story is a memory itself, something dreamlike and not quite real.
It may take a while for audiences to tune into the strange frequency but the second act presents some intriguing dynamics that will keep you hooked. Once the stranger is introduced, secrets start to slowly unearth that ask some devilishly curious questions. Why is Bee particularly infatuated with Luca's return? What is Evie hiding? And what is the stranger's true motive? The answers are slowly revealed and shed some light onto each character that only lead towards more questions. It's expertly paced and the possibilities are exciting. Which is why the ending is especially disappointing after such a fantastic build-up.
The quiet suspense is replaced by melodrama that is terribly played out by the cast, and some of the character decisions and narrative turns are frustratingly confusing. It's a shame because Egan and her co-writer Emma Lungiswa de Wet touch on some fascinating ideas about re-writing history and how ignorance really is bliss. They also play with the idea of chosen family but the lack of clarification on what the actual state of the family is, presents a situation where one reading of it is innocent and another extremely disturbing.
Glasshouse is an ambitious feature debut that tackles some lofty and challenging ideas, but it isn't executed successfully. A strong second act is bookended by generally weaker acts that audiences will have a hard time investing their interests in. In a strange way, the film feels not too dissimilar to Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth, which evokes the feeling that in more capable hands Glasshouse could have been a stimulating and exhilarating experience.
Glasshouse will be available on digital platforms on February 7.