30 March 2024

The Portrait delves into grief in a supernatural thriller

| Rama Gaind
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Natalia Cordova-Buckley and Ryan Kwanten star in the psychological thriller The Portrait. Photo: Supplied.

Film director Simon Ross (Dead Cool, Avernus) makes his feature debut with The Portrait, a ghost story selected for the 2023 San Diego International Film Festival and Raindance Film Festival UK.

Written by David Griffiths (The Hunted), it features some fine ideas, including exploring grief, even though implementation is lacklustre at times. Combining horror and art doesn’t always make for a scary movie, but this one is anything but straightforward.

Clip back the nightmare and there are instances of penetrating, meditative and even uncertain individual involvement that leads to role-playing, spontaneous dramatisation and melodramatic self-presentation to investigate and gain insight into their lives.

In keeping with traditional horror, the opening scenes preserve the conventional as a screaming young woman is dragged bleeding through the woods by an expressionless, hostile man. While this evolves, a portrait is being painted, making us think that something about this imaginative process is linked to violence.

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The storyline sees a husband devastated by a tragic accident, and a devoted wife obsessing over a mysterious portrait, which initially communicates its fear through artwork that sits in the attic of a mansion. It resembles him as he was, but when it starts to terrorise her, she must decide whether it’s possessed or she’s losing her mind.

The film’s heroine, Sofia (Natalia Cordova-Buckley, (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Destroyer), is disturbed because the canvas bears a striking resemblance to her catatonic husband, Alex (Ryan Kwanten, Kill Chain, True Blood, Glorious).

Both Cordova-Buckley and Australian actor Kwanten are dedicated to their roles with a fierce commitment. While family members can always be seen in others, Sofia is told the portrait is of his great-grandfather, and because it’s identical, she can’t help but be more than a little worried. It doesn’t take long for her to begin questioning her own sanity and the mental anguish regarding the physical presence of the portrait.

It doesn’t take us long to realise there’s a story behind Sofia being a devoted wife and carer to Alex. The secret is out: she’s actually the one responsible for his brain injury, the result of a marital disagreement that resulted in him being struck by a car. Her love and a guilty conscience propel her anxiously to want him to acquire some function, a sense of normality. She conflicts with an innermost turmoil, adding a layer of poignant reverberation where we could be led to believe it’s a chilling narrative.

Probing further, Sofia finds out the man supposedly in the frame was vicious, which alarms her even further. She feels the portrait’s ”eyes” watch her wherever she goes, or was the vastness of the house playing tricks on her?

Sofia’s only main human interaction is with Alex’s cousin, Mags (Virginia Madsen, Candyman), who relishes her part, and the estate’s well-spoken gardener, Brookes (Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Saved by the Bell). It doesn’t take long for her trust in them to decline, just as her sanity begins to weaken.

The film impressively presents Sofia’s deep, delicate despondency and Cordova-Buckley, who dominates practically every frame, is the key to us caring for her. We identify with her being alone and susceptible, with Alex no longer her husband.

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Sofia brings a great deal of her own multifaceted emotions and anxiety disorder to bear on her situation. A psychological thriller, The Portrait is unnerving, a creative blend of The Invisible Man and Dorian Gray. A slow-burn cliffhanger, it revels in teasing with the emotional tie at its core. Chills are aplenty.

If the intention of director Ross and writer David Griffiths was to create an uncomfortable atmosphere of dread with supernatural activities, then the mission is accomplished. The overall feel is onerous and confining, even though an unexpected ending asks more questions than it answers. An unforeseen, slanted little treasure.

The Portrait, from Defiant Screen Entertainment, launched on Digital on 14 February.

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