Wearing its influences on its sleeves, Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney’s lo-fi fantasy film Strawberry Mansion is a gloriously offbeat but sweet film that unexpectedly touches you. A film full of whimsy originality.
James Preble (Kentucker Audley) is a man who loves his Cap’n Kelly fried chicken. He likes it so much he dreams about it; rather fitting since James is a dream auditor for the federal government, taxing monetary content in now-mandated recorded dreams. A mysterious letter leads him to the farmhouse of elderly eccentric Arabella Isadora (Penny Fuller), where years of her VHS-recorded dreams need to be audited. In the course of his job, James will meet Bella’s younger self (Grace Glowicki).
A film about dreams presented as if it was a dream itself was always going to be an interesting piece. Filmmakers Audley and Birney make sure to bring us as imaginative a picture as they can. Full of whimsy and charm, our filmmakers make a concerted effort to take us in a new direction as often as they can. As an audience member, you are all for it as they practically skip along, guiding us into this unique world. We have a film that works on so many levels that you can’t help but admire it for how resolutely it sticks to its guns.
There is the old thought of not overthinking or analysing a film and taking it as it comes. It is almost a horrible line to say that you are suggesting the film is not worth concentrating on by doing so. Yet Strawberry Mansion is the perfect film to sit back and relax and allow the filmmakers to take you on a fantastical ride. So, come in with that open mind, and you will undoubtedly be rewarded for it. Originality is constantly accused of lacking in cinema; after seeing Audley and Birney’s film, it is hard to agree with such thoughts; originality is here, it just needs us to look for it.
Sure there is a strong tonal shift just over midway, but that is the point of James’ journey. By finding a way to awaken his imagination in his dreams, his subconsciousness is awoken to what could amount to years of pent up ideas. So off his mind goes on long stretches of surrealism; you could easily get lost and disassociated with Strawberry Mansion at this point. It gives off the pretence that it is directionless, but there is a meaning behind those moments in the latter half. By sticking with it, the final moments become all the more rewarding.
James’ ever-evolving and complicated relationship with Bella is such an interesting one. As the offbeat, Bella introduces James to her way of living and her beliefs. We see the straight-backed civil servant see that not everything needs to be as black and white or, as in his case, a wonderful pinkish hue confined to a box. It can be open and free on a lush green field. Their dynamic, be it with the present elderly Bella or the young dream one, carries Strawberry Mansion.
Yes, the fantastic visuals take you away into a wonderful surreal world. Still, none of it would matter if it wasn’t for the work carried out by Kentucker Audley, Penny Fuller and Grace Glowicki. Their work here allows the film to become quite a fascinating watch as Audley’s quiet performance perfectly juxtaposes what we see going on around him. Equally, Fuller and Glowicki’s more upbeat performances allow us to revel in the environment presented. They never go over the top with their roles, and in a film where large mice in sailor costumes are manning a large ship from the 1700s, it is needed.
The story also works in its insular manner. At times, you think that due to the world created here, Strawberry Mansion is going to veer into a big escapade as Bella reveals the information she has to James. However, rather wisely, we keep it simple and personal, and it works so well. We are also devoid of these big dramatic moments that would fill other films. Audley and Birney instead take the understated, so it almost hits you more when something important does happen. Full of thoughtful tenderness, you buy the budding relationship and where their journey together goes. This is a film that, if it had a firmer narrative it would have lost all of what makes it work, and by keeping the reigns just loose enough, we can have a whale of a time.
For everything right that our filmmakers do in the movie, a word needs to be said about the utterly sensational production design by Becca Morrin. Who was seemingly given the spec of going as creative as possible, and goodness did she run away with it to conjure up something rather magical. There is so much style in this film that you have to applaud Morrin and her team for pulling it off. It is not only the big set pieces that mesmerise; it is the small touches littered throughout Becca’s home that allow us to fall into the world.
Strawberry Mansion teeters on the edge of losing its audience in the second half due to how unconventional it becomes due to its, at first glance, style over substance. Still, thanks to all of the excellent world-building and performances in the first half, it manages to keep us connected to the story. Also, enough is going on under the surface of this film, and keeping that whimsical and free narrative, allows for the entire piece to stretch without falling apart. In the end, though, Strawberry Mansion shows us the importance of imagination and connections in an all too cynical world; it just does it so weirdly and wonderfully.
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