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Movie Review: Stoker

Director Park Chan Wook's Hollywood debut lacks the high tension touch he is famed for

STOKER (M18)

99 minutes/In Cinemas now/

The story: India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) loses her dad Richard (Dermot Mulroney) in a road accident on her 18th birthday. When her charming, long-lost uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) joins their household, it is enthralling and yet unsettling for her and her mother (Nicole Kidman). A serial killer might be on the loose but India's reaction is strangely calm.

Stoker is a psychosexual drama told as a Gothic fairy tale, and South Korean director Park Chan Wook, with his storybook visual style and fondness for the pretty and the queasy, seems to be the man to bring it to screen.

So it feels at first.

Movie Review: Stoker

The opening of Park's first Hollywood film, flitting through the lonely childhood games of female protagonist India (Mia Wasikowska) to her father's death on her 18th birthday, sets the mood handsomely.

In a few frames, their sprawling manor transforms from a lush playground to a funeral ground - and perhaps a burial site of dark secrets.

The setting is so timeless and uncanny, it is a surprise when a character makes an allusion to the 1990s - as if a witch's spell has been broken.

India, quiet, watchful and apparently impassive in mourning, is not quite what she seems (of course).

Nor is her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), a mystery man who attends the funeral and stays on. Disturbingly, he appears to be flirting with his brother's widow Evie (Nicole Kidman), while casting attentive glances in India's direction.

Or is he?

Exquisite cross-cuts, flipping between the past and present, the real and imaginary, get you inside India's head and give you a sense of what she is longing for.

There is a feverish piano duet, which turns erotic. A wooden pencil box is slammed shut, summoning a memory of a makeshift coffin being closed.

At one point, someone is stabbed with a pencil and Park, the maestro of violence, seems to take pleasure in a scene where the bloody, unlikely weapon is sharpened, making squishing sounds as wood petals fall on a table.

Movie Review: Stoker

However, as India's self-knowledge deepens, and sex and death move into the foreground, the slow-burning film does not quite catch fire.

Nor does it hit the emotional boiling point of Park's Korean films, which he wrote and directed, such as Oldboy (2003) and Lady Vengeance (2005), where the characters are as vivid as the dramatic interiors of their domains.

Instead, as people (including Jacki Weaver as an elderly relative) disappear in Stoker and secrets are revealed, the screenplay - by Prison Break actor Wentworth Miller - shifts to garden-variety serial-killer territory.

The tension quickly leaks out of the film and things become tepid.

Sure, it is one lovely garden. But from Park, you expect so much more.

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