Luella Miller challenges those recent movies which have had so much acclaim, In My Father’s Den, Rain, The World’s Fastest Indian, for a place on the top shelf. This is riveting stuff.
Luella Miller, New Zealand, 2005
Director: Dane Giraud
Producer: John Davies
Associate producer: Robert Rowe
Screenplay: Owen Black, Dane Giraud
Cinematography: Paul Tomlins
Editor: Campbell Farquhar
Original music: Samuel Holloway
Art direction: You Jae Lee
With: Sara Wiseman (Lydia), Sia Trokenheim (Luella Miller), Philip Brown (Christian), Jacqueline Nairn (Sophie), Alistair Browning (Craig), Kevin J. Wilson (Peter), Rod Lousich (Richard), Ingrid Park (Gale), Mark Lahina (George)
R16-Contains violence, offensive language, drug use & sex scenes, 82 minutes
“Jealousy, longing, and sexual repression lurk under the surface of the rolling green hills and supposedly quiet life of a rural town in New Zealand. Nestled in this landscape, Lydia lives alone in a large homestead, working as a seamstress and costume designer for the local theater. Growing up with charming boy-next-door Justin, Lydia harbors a deep crush, but fear of rejection leaves her skittish… yet lustful. Enter Luella Miller, an attractive twenty- something drifter with a penchant for seducing men and leaving women scared. Lydia first finds Luella in a disheveled state and offers her lodging and care, not anticipating Luella’s bewitchment and the betrayal and destruction that will follow.
Written and directed by Australian Dane Giraud (The Waiting Place), this frothy love story certainly has degrees of intrigue. While Luella Miller is generally bad news, her seductive ways actually release the long held inhibitions within other people. However, affairs with Luella happen so fast that her targets are left agitated and unsure; this overwhelms their sensibilities for the fallout to come. So we’re left watching people constantly acting upon their passions with the shit hitting the fan afterwards. Initially interesting, yes, but their lack of self-control ultimately produces grave results, and with integrity eroding away, no character achieves any personal growth or victory.
The actors are very good, and without their talent the film would certainly fall flat. Perfectly cast Sara Wiseman had worked with Giraud before in The Waiting Place; here she plays Lydia drenched in maudlin longing and sexual repression, but with some sense of hope. Wild-faced beauty Sia Trokenheim plays brazen Luella Miller with abandon and believability (including lots of black eyeliner). Philip Brown plays Justin with the right balance of boyish charm and masculine, bullish fever to help balance this estrogen-heavy film. The wise editing by Campbell Farquhar keeps a healthy pace going, and Paul Tomlin’s thoughtful photography certainly enhances the atmospheric mood.
The movie is recorded on digital video - its biggest downfall. Despite the talent involved and low budget, the presentation really exhibits a specific lack of finesse and movie-magic that traditional 35 mm, or even 16 mm film, captures. Also, although I liked the first two acts of the movie, I was disappointed with the ending. It is arguably fair and credible, but I found it ultimately cliched, doomed, and uninspired. I hope Dane Giraud can get his hands on film equipment or film-like resolution gear someday soon, because overall, I think he shows promise.” — Dan Ramer, DVDFile.com, yahoo.movies, 20 February 2006
“I have the highest hopes for the film Luella Miller. A dedicated cast and crew has defied our budget and schedule constraints to deliver a film that far exceeds my expectations. It was an ambitious project, all things considered, but personal demands for excellence from all concerned have helped to create a film that we can all be proud of, a film that will not wear it's constraints as a badge but will rather stand up as a further example of the talent that this country has to offer. I thank you for your support so far and hope you enjoy our baby, Luella Miller.” —Dane Giraud, Director’s Notes
“Against a familiar New Zealand landscape, whose presence played no small part in the narrative, the community, small and tightly knit, is portrayed in a vulnerable state of precarious social balance and it is no surprise, though certainly horrifying, to watch the fabric unravel with one catalyst, the arrival of Luella Miller. In the lap of a grand two-storeyed house with a recent history which haunts the memories of the lone occupant, fantasies and delusions fester under the surface of an apparently community-minded individual with creative talent. To echoes of Polanski, the footsteps through the corridors and stairways of the mansion develops a sinister flavour of what is to become, but is subtle enough to avoid the cliché of the horror genre. There is a glimpse of paranoia in this psychological thriller that frankly, has everything. Jealousy, love, tragedy, murder, deceit, an intriguing past, beauty and ugliness, violence and tenderness, it’s all there, beautifully filmed in the shadows and recesses of warm polished banisters and empty dark hallways. The complexity of Lydia’s confused grip on reality is masterfully set in unique atmosphere of local theatre, a backdrop of costumes, within which Lydia dreams her pretend life and is carried away from the dreadful mundane existence of everyday. She hires a Zorro costume, the epitome of a romantic hero, to her secret love. Her wardrobes are full of flimsy, glamorous costumes, foils to her personal feelings of inadequacy, the essence of her fantasy and the vehicle to her unrealised dreams of romance and sexual fulfilment. Luella wears them, plays the dangerous role of femme fatale and lives Lydia’s dream. In a glorious celebration of New Zealand talent in telling a small story with big impact, Luella Miller challenges those recent movies which have had so much acclaim, In My Father’s Den, Rain, The World’s Fastest Indian, for a place on the top shelf. This is riveting stuff. Perfectly judged scene changes, flawless performances and a narrative line that never falters. There are surprises and twists right through to the end from a script that had an affection for the characters who took on a disturbing dimension of familiarity. Yes, this could be simmering just under the surface of our own communities, just waiting for an event that could topple the delicately balanced equilibrium.” — Hawke's Bay Today, 24/11/05
Screenings: Luella Miller screened on 12 September 2007 as part of the Desktop Cinema: 8 recent NZ digital features season.