Scott Hardie: “It ruled.”

What a sad, strange story. The Netflix description gives you the background, but it doesn't communicate the quiet elegance of this documentary, filmed in soft black and white with the emphasis on visual composition, since many of the shots intentionally echo one another. This movie is sometimes depressing, sometimes bleakly humorous, and sometimes surprisingly violent, all derived from its morbid subject matter. Writer-director-producer James Marsh stays true to the source material while filtering it for audience expectations: He highlights three of the most entertaining stories – a madwoman who enjoys smashing windows everywhere she goes, a 13-year-old fugitive outlaw, and a famous Opera singer reduced to subsisting on cattle feed on her own pipe-dream farm — and he gathers the stories together into narrative bundles, dealing with chilldhood in winter, youth in spring, adulthood in summer, middle age and marital strife in autumn, and old age in another winter, diminishing the sense of disconnection the stories might otherwise have.

The film started slowly, but by "spring" I was enjoying it immensely, for its ability to distill an interesting story into a few lines of bleak narration and striking photography. My only two complaints are the introductory paragraph at the start of each season, which spoils much of the mystery, and the highly irritating choice to read the notes of the insane asylum's attending physician not in a normal voice, but in a breathy whisper that grates on the nerves. The grisly subject matter of dozens of murders and suicides makes this a hard movie to recommend, but if you can see something pretty and worthwhile in sad little tales like this, it might be worth the chance. It's one that will stay with you.

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