First film that came to my mind while watching The Babadook: We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lynne Ramsay's utterly uncomfortable adaptation of Lionel Shriver's novel about a mother trying to deal with an unwanted, unloved son. Second film that came to my mind: Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, because Essie Davis channels almost effortlessly the same fragility and overwhelmed nature as Mia Farrow did in that classic.
Both are horror stories where the horror is not so much physical or present as it is suggested; they're films where what matters is ambiguous, unspoken, eerily ominous. For most of its length, Australian actress Jennifer Kent's feature directing debut is just such an expert exercise in mood-swinging, about the dark sides of motherhood, straddling a fine line between actual unexplainable phenomena and the hallucinatory manifestations of a troubled mind (or a guilty conscience?).
Ms. Davis is terrific as Amelia, a frenzied, frazzled nurse at an old people's home who has never truly recovered from the death of her husband in a car crash, just when he was driving her to the hospital to give birth to their child. Samuel, now six years old and played with preternatural poise by Noah Wiseman, is needless to say a problem child: he sees monsters all the time, builds monster-destroying weapons for fun, has problems fitting in with kids his age, whether at school or with the few relatives he still sees every now and then.
Amelia's well-meaning, if ineffective, protectiveness seems to be doing no good to either of them, and a particularly acute crisis is awakened by an eerie book they find at home unaware of its provenance: the dark tale of a bogeyman called The Babadook. And as Samuel starts seeing the Babadook everywhere, an exhausted Amelia, already close to breaking point, starts behaving so oddly and assertively that the strange goings-on in the household become ambiguous. Is there really a sinister presence stalking Amelia and Samuel, or is it just the projection of a mother unable to deal with her demanding child?
Either way, Ms. Kent handles it with great aplomb, winding the tale with measured, attentive confidence, expertly directing her excellent performers in what is essentially a two-hander, developed from a previous short film where she laid out the concept. The image of a helpless mom who just wishes her loud child would leave her alone for a moment may not be everyone's idea of motherhood, but it's probably closer to the truth than most would admit it - which is precisely why it's a shame that the Babadook as a metaphor for a fear there to be conquered loses its ambiguity in a spectacularly flattening ending that manages to be simultaneously utterly truthful and somewhat treacherous to what's come before (and about which no more shall be said). Not enough to spoil for good the enormous intelligence of Ms. Kent's very auspicious debut, but certainly enough to regret she did not take it as far as it could go.
Cast Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West, Ben Winspear
Director and screenwriter Jennifer Kent; cinematographer Radek Ledczuk (colour, widescreen); composer Jed Wurzel; designer Alex Holmes; costumes Heather Wallace; editor Simon Njoo; producers Kristina Ceyton and Kristian Moliere; production companies Screen Australia and Causeway Films in association with South Australian Film Corporation, Smoking Gun Productions and Entertainment One
Screened October 9th 2014, Cinema City Alvalade 2, Lisbon (distributor press screening)