Review: THE CHANGEOVER, A Dark Fantasy From New Zealand
Miranda Harcourt & Stuart McKenzie direct Erana James in this fantasy adaptation from New Zealand.
A young woman finds her inner strength in Miranda Harcourt & Stuart McKenzie's dark fantasy film The Changeover. Based on a popular 1984 novel by Margaret Mahy, The Changeover follows the plucky sixteen-year-old Laura Chant (Erana James) as she tries to save her young brother from an ancient curse. Standing in her way is Carmody Braque (Timothy Spall), an ageless spirit who poses as an antique dealer as a way of luring unwitting souls to their doom. Before she can save her brother, she must realize her own destiny and gain access to an inborn power that she doesn't know how to harness.
The story is a well-known one in New Zealand, where it was written and where it is based, and so it's surprising that it's taken this long to get the award winning novel to the big screen. The directors have done a wonderful job making this story of witches and spirits a contemporary coming of age tale that is perfect for the young adult set.
Erana James makes her feature lead debut in The Changeover, and it's trial by fire as the film's success rests firmly on her shoulders. Though she's ably supported by indie superstar Melanie Lynskey (Hello I Must Be Going, I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore) and TV legend Lucy Lawless (Ash Vs. Evil Dead, Spartacus), it's Laura Chant's story that propels the film forward. Her character feels different from everyone else in a way that no one understands, and it's up to her, with a little help from a boy at school and his family of witches, to release the boy Jacko Chant (Benji Purchase) from the curse.
Most of the action faces inward, with Laura's struggle between trying to be the normal teenager her mother wants her to be and making the changeover into the witch she was born to be forming the crux of the story. However, Harcourt and McKenzie's direction takes the visual direction of the film very seriously with some interesting choices and key visual cues to let the audience in on Laura's struggle with the world everyone else sees, and her own reality. It's not particularly flashy, but more of an urban take on a Harry Potter-ish story of self-realization, which is very interesting and well worth checking out.
Speaking of Potter, the inimitable Timothy Spall casts a dark and sinister shadow as Carmody Braque, the villain for whom Jacko represents the key to his continued immortality. Spall's characterization of Braque feels like a tamped down version of his Peter Pettigrew character from the Potter films, with all of the sniveling sinister sneers, and less of the over the top character tics. As a fan of Spall since I first became aware of him in 1998's Still Crazy, I'm always excited to see what he does with a character, and I'm delighted that he continues a long successful run of leaving a big impression in The Changeover.
Subtle enough to draw in adult fans of dark fantasy, but relatable enough to appeal to young adult audiences, The Changeover is another in a long line of quality genre films from New Zealand. Even with several decades of classics behind it, it still amazes me that this tiny island nation consistently pumps out some of the best genre films in the world, and with talent like this both in front of and behind the camera, it's clear that there's a lot more greatness so come.