By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist September 6, 2011 at 6:09AM
It's remarkably tough to get any film financed, at least one that doesn't have 3D talking animals from a popular cartoon series. So it's no surprise that some filmmakers, for all their best efforts, can go three, four, five or more years between pictures. Worryingly, it seems to be doubly true for female directors. Look at Kimberley Pierce, who's only made one film in the twelve years since "Boys Don't Cry," or Tamara Jenkins, for whom nearly a decade separated "Slums of Beverley Hills" and "The Savages," or even Kathryn Bigelow, who might be an Oscar-winner now, but had a six-year break before "The Hurt Locker." One of the key examples here is Mary Harron, who since her 1996 debut "I Shot Andy Warhol" had only made two other films: "American Psycho," and the biopic "The Notorious Bettie Page," the latter of which was five whole years ago. None of her films to date have been stellar, but she's always displayed more than enough filmmaking nous to make an upcoming Harron picture something to look forward to.
And 2011 has brought a new one, which premiered out of competition in Venice today, before heading off to Toronto: "The Moth Diaries." Based on the cult 2001 novel by Rachel Klein, the Irish/Canadian co-production sees Harron take solo scripting duties for the first time on a project that marks the umpteenth vampire picture to make it to screens in recent years. Rebecca (Sarah Bolger, the wee lass from "In America" now all grown up) has had a tough few years, following the suicide of her father, a famous poet. Thanks to her boarding school, Brangwyn College, housed in a former hotel, and in particular her best friend Lucy (Sarah Gadon, also seen on the festival circuit right now in "A Dangerous Method"), she's coming out the other side. But a new pupil has arrived for the start of the term, the mysterious Ernessa (Lily Cole), who wanders the grounds in the dead of night, and seems to have an unholy sway over Lucy. After the attractive new English teacher (Scott Speedman) begins teaching a course on gothic literature, Rebecca starts to wonder if Ernessa might be a threat to those around her, and soon her friends are dropping away...
There is, ultimately, a reason that vampire fiction continues to be so popular; it's a resilient metaphor, one that can be applied to any number of situations. And Harron's material does have the potential to put a fresh spin on the thing, with depression, eating disorders and the transient, terrifyingly close nature of adolescent female friendship all being linked to Cole's potential succubus, themes that play nicely into Harron's established skill set. But the problem is that Harron's talent seems to have crumbled somewhat in the last few years; the film never really manages to engage with those themes, or any others, and also fails to be scary, or sexy, or anything else that it seems to be setting out to achieve.
The picture can't decide whether it's a PG-13 "Twilight" type, or something gorier and sexier. There's blood, but not a lot of it, and there's a little sex in it, but not much of it happens to the main characters -- Harron hints at delving into the closeness of a female boarding school, that time in life when friendship and something deeper blur, but it doesn't pay off. Rebecca starts to connect with Speedman's surrogate father figure, but again, the plotline runs out of steam before it's really gotten going, the whole thing coming across as rather timid for a filmmaker who was happy to have a naked Christian Bale chase a prostitute around an apartment with a chainsaw.
The film doesn't work even as a straight genre piece. Harron seems to be trying to instill a certain is-she-or-isn't-she about Ernessa, but there's never really any doubt, with Bolger being too upright and sane for the audience to ever question whether she's gone crazy. Harron's going for a gothic psychological tone, but instead the script clunks every time someone opens their mouth, and dips into outright camp by the conclusion, with some decidedly hackneyed imagery ending up on screen -- most notably some naff saturation in flashback/dream sequences starring Rebecca's late father.
Bolger is sort of watchable, but like we said, never gets up the courage to go up to the edge (something of a metaphor for the film itself), while Cole couldn't play anything other than porcelain doll/space alien if her life depended on it; it's not that she's terrible, but she never seems to hit any note other than "I am a vampire." Gadon comes over best of the leads, but she'll have far better moments across her career ("A Dangerous Method," for one), while Judy Parfitt brings some usual class to the joint as the school's headmistress, and Valerie Tian ("Juno") is probably the liveliest of the supporting teens.
It's not that there wasn't potential here, and maybe with the right co-writer (the touch of Guinevere Turner, who worked on Harron's last two films, is sorely missed) the film might have worked. As it is, at best, "The Moth Diaries" could generally be described as a vampiric take on some CW teen series, with about the same level of depth and filmmaking excellence. "Goth-ip Girl," if you will. [D-]