“The truth is a heavy thing… but someone has to carry it.” These words are uttered towards the end of Glasshouse and encapsulate the philosophical evocations that filmmaker Kelsey Egan is grasping for in her feature debut.
The timely film is set after a memory-wasting toxin, called The Shred, has ripped through the land and created a dystopian wasteland where one family, or a group of people resembling a family, have created a safe house. The family is made up of the stern matriarch (Adrienne Pearce), the free-spirited eldest of the children Bee (Jessica Alexander), the rule follower and burden carrier Evie (Anja Taljaard), the brother Gabe (Brent Vermeulen) who was exposed to The Shred and is beginning to show signs of mental deterioration and then the youngest Daisy (Kitty Harris), who has only ever known these living conditions. The family have numerous crops and plants to maintain as well as rituals they undertake to keep them connected to their memory and past, with each member playing their own specific part.
This idyllic large greenhouse, holding a beautiful family, is nestled in the woods and seems to be constantly bathing in golden hour light, but its beauty disguises its reality. Dead bodies are then used as part of this mysterious ritual, and then a stranger appears, tall, dark and handsome, from the wilderness to disrupt their secluded and methodically ordered unit.
From the start, there is a clear mix of influences and references, from the sci-fi-like oxygen masks with Handmaid’s Tale bonnets to the Victorian clothes and hair of the matriarch. This creates thought-provoking visuals immediately hinting at dystopian worlds and gender politics, yet turns out to feel more like throwaway visual motifs that seem to suggest a film that never comes to fruition.
Glasshouse has a fairytale, child-like quality to its narrative; any exposition is told in nursery rhymes and fairytales to the younger members of the family and the film opens with a child singing over sweeping wide shots of the compound. This is combined with the light, airy and clean quality of the mise-en-scene and is clear in the narrative and visuals too. The braided hair, the singing while picking fruit and the handsome stranger all feel classical and romantic and are stark compared to the threat they face. It’s reminiscent of a sci-fi The Beguiled, or even a dystopian Black Narcissus, however, compared to those stories it significantly lacks the subtle sensuality that builds the tension to a breaking point. In fact, there isn’t much sincere tension at all, the narrative is ripe for it but the film isn’t able to build on the strong building blocks at its disposal
This is partly because we’re meant to believe these characters have been stuck in this place, in these routines, for years and decades and yet it all feels so fresh. The actors’ chemistry and their relationship to their surroundings doesn’t feel worn in or worn down and this doesn’t help the world-building, which is so integral to a film of this nature. This is largely due to a script that grows weaker and thinner as the narrative unfolds and actors who deliver unnatural dialogue histrionically.
The dramatic arc that unfolds in Glasshouse is darkly compelling with twisted family dynamics revealing themselves. Egan doesn’t hit the viewer over the head with the plot (which is a trap many high-concept dystopian films sometimes fall into) – the narrative threads come undone in an intriguing way. However, it does at points feel unnatural and melodramatic, being stung by its weaker dialogue and actors and while the film has a compelling idea with the visuals to match, it doesn’t reach far enough into itself with a script that could have been so much more.
Glasshouse is no doubt an assured debut from Kelsey Egan, a director with an exciting future who is one to keep an eye out for, just unfortunately the strength of a good idea doesn’t outweigh the need for a convincing execution.
Glasshouse was shown as part of Fantasia 2021
Madeleine (she/her) is a film student at the University of Winchester currently working on a dissertation on women killers in giallo films. She’s a big horror fan (the tackier the better) and also loves sci-fi and fantasy. Right now, she thinks her favourite films are Pan’s Labyrinth, The Wicker Man and Deep Red but she is also very indecisive. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @madeleinia and Letterboxd here