Park Chan-wook, 99 mins (18)

Jonathan Romney on Stoker: Embalming fluid can go a long way


Forget the weird plot and get lost in fabulous visuals and a pouting, simmering Nicole Kidman

I've never much liked the phrase "style over substance" to disparage a film. Only too often, "substance" is what weighs down a movie (somehow the word makes me think of suet), while "style" is what makes it float. And I have no problem – when it comes to an entirely airy production like Stoker – with style being practically all that a film has to offer in the way of substance.

Stoker is the American debut of Korean director Park Chan-wook, whose Oldboy (2003) – notorious for its octopus-noshing sequence – was one of the weirdest thrillers ever. His new film is also strange, though nowhere near as visceral. It's a coming-of-age chiller about a solitary young woman, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), who lives with her mother Evie (Nicole Kidman), a woman of cut-glass nerves and waxwork beauty. India is introduced in images of eerie and somewhat precious rural lyricism – wandering among wildflowers and palely loitering, which seems pretty much the Stoker family business.

As the story begins, India's father (Dermot Mulroney) has died, and long-lost Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) shows up at his funeral, tossing flirtatious glances at Evie. Resentful India retreats to her bedroom to contemplate her collection of black-and-white bowling shoes. Never mind why, but the differently sized shoes look fantastic arranged in a circle around India – that's what they call style over substance.

In his Korean films, such as the elegantly deranged Lady Vengeance, Park's MO is to craft gruesomely perverse thriller plots and wrap them in offbeat, exquisite mises en scène; he is, in effect, Asia's Almodovar. Stoker, however, has next to nothing going for it narratively. The script – by Wentworth Miller, formerly lead baldie on TV's Prison Break – is a flimsy fancy about a young girl's repulsion at adult ways. Horrified by Mama and Charlie carrying on after Dad's death, India is a female Hamlet. But the film is also a knowing remake of Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, laced with nods to Carrie.

Park piles on the visual frills – slinking camera moves, close-ups of spiders, and some genuinely unexpected uses of CGI for segueing between scenes. A magnificently outré shot follows a comb through Kidman's hair, which suddenly but seamlessly – and quite gratuitously – morphs into a field of grass. Stoker grows more florid by the minute, whether regaling us with the fancy handwriting on Charlie's letters, or with Kidman reclining in a flower-filled boudoir. Park pursues a manner of detached visual cool, yet works up a mood that's just this side of hysteria. This is American Gothic for aesthetes – as if Tennessee Williams had created The Addams Family.

As for suspense, who cares about Uncle Charlie's terrible secret? Not Park, it seems; he blows the gaffe surprisingly early, as if to admit he's really more interested in the aquarium-green walls of the Stoker house, or in Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra duetting on the soundtrack.

He doesn't seem that fussed about the acting, either, with the cast all playing familiar archetypes. Wasikowska does the fey, gloomy virgin with chill expertise, and Goode is serviceably smarmy as a preppie ephebe with a touch of James Mason. The one anomaly is Kidman; she simmers, squirms and pouts as a stately tarnished belle, but her features are so stiffly polished that the more expression she works up, the more she seems to be struggling against an overdose of embalming fluid. It's mesmerisingly awkward, yet I can't deny that it enhances Stoker's unhealthy fascination.

The film is fabulously designed by Thérèse DePrez and shot with morbid succulence by Park's regular cameraman Chung Chung-hoon. At one point, the soundtrack gives us the thunderous cracking of a hard-boiled egg – and that's what Park is out to do, to crunch our nerves, to give us a frisson that's as much about stylistic rapture as about conventional genre effect. Stoker may be eggshell-thin, but it's a refined anomaly that's hard to dismiss.

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London