Knee-deep in dread, fueled by sexual repression, The Well is an outback gothic that resists Grand Guignol in favor of psychological suggestion and fussy symbolism. First-time Australian director Samantha Lang keeps backstory to a parenthetical minimum in this stark two-hander, a double-edged strategy that heightens the mystery and coarsens the archetypes. A lonely spinster hires a vivacious, wayward waif as her maid, and the first half of The Well maps the psychic terrain of their relationship, detailing its implicit agreements and calculated ambiguities; the second enlists this precarious, coded dynamic in the service of sequestered-housemate mind games.
Hester (Pamela Rabe), a dowdy schoolmarmish type who walks with a limp and wears her graying hair in a forbidding, nooselike braid, lives on a farm with her senile, cranky father. Her impulsive new employee, Katherine (Miranda Otto), is like a life force blowing through the musty household. Before long, she’s assumed control of their recreational time, supplanting somber requiem singing with hard-rock wigouts and (after an evening glued to the TV set) persuading Hester to playact Clyde to her Bonnie. When Hester’s father dies suddenly and the homestead is traded in for a smaller house with a portentous well on the property, their camaraderie takes on an uncomfortable element of neediness—the older woman plainly in thrall to the younger, who seems to be either losing her grasp on reality or awakening to the opportunity for manipulation.
As rendered by Mandy Walker’s evocative cinematography, the craggy, desolate landscapes stand in for Hester’s state of mind—the severely bleached images are a fatigued shade of cobalt, while bright primary-color objects, usually associated with Katherine, are vividly isolated in the near-monochromatic palette. Working from a script by Laura Jones (who adapted An Angel at My Table and The Portrait of a Lady for Jane Campion), Lang engineers the suspenseful interludes with complete assurance and some flair, and Rabe’s performance is admirably complex; but The Well is still most easily defined by its unavoidable parallels to any number of lesbian-overtone psychodramas (from Rebecca to The Fox). Throughout, the familiarity of the scenario undermines the confidence of the filmmaking.