Thomas Wilson-White’s The Greenhouse, part of the 35th BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival, is a queer fairytale, but if that sounds like it’s all prancing twinks in tight shorts running around the woods, I hate to be the one to disappoint you. Like all good fairytales, this one is about bigger, darker things, and serves as a parable for real life.
Beth (Jane Watt) lives with her mum Ruth (Camilla Ah Kin) after the death of her other mum Lillian (Rhondda Findleton). While her siblings have started to move on, she feels stuck; by duty, by her grief, by life. In the memory of a family dinner where her kin dissect a chaste date show she’s the more reserved of her wilder, more liberal family. As Ruth’s 60th birthday approaches, the family gets back together but for Beth, things start spiralling.
Memory plays a big role in The Greenhouse. The film starts in a memory and goes deeper from there. At first glance the movie presents itself as story of grief and acceptance, before starting to skew into magical realism as Beth, suffering from apparent insomnia, discovers a greenhouse on their rural property through the mist and fog. Exploring this space, she literally steps back into her memories, discovering aspects she never knew in the moments she remembered. As they get closer to Ruth’s birthday, she spends more and more time on the other side of this portal.
Grief and depression have a way of holding us in place, putting our brains into neutral as we relive moments, refusing to move on. What The Greenhouse does so well is dramatise that numbing feeling. Beth starts to deteriorate before her family’s eyes, the lack of sleep taking a toll on her physical and emotional state. As Wilson-White ups the emotional stakes with the reappearance of a close friend, Beth is forced to face the choices she’s hidden herself away from.
There’s a touch of “Australian gothic” about the setting of The Greenhouse—a country property surrounded by trees with a mysterious mist—that’s tonally reminiscent of Peter Weir 1975’s classic, Picnic at Hanging Rock. The lingering effects of Beth’s trips through the greenhouse start to bleed out into her everyday life (one daydream on the grass has startling results) leaving us wondering if the greenhouse is a physical place or a state of mind. The “monkey’s paw” of this magical portal becomes clear, reliving the warm glow of your past may go some way to bringing loved ones back, but in the end it stops you from growing and progressing. Obsessing over the past robs you of your future.
Queerness is baked into the film in such a completely effortless way with this diverse family unit, from lesbian mothers, to a gay son and more. Its queerness is part of the undercurrent that carries the story along. Also a reminder that even people with supportive families can struggle with their own sexuality.
The third act is going to make or break your enjoyment of the film. It reminded me of Danny Boyle’s under-rated sci-fi film Sunshine, with a third act reveal that skewed the story in more a genre-heavy direction that some loved but others felt it spoiled a mature meditation on hope and despair. I liked the injection of energy The Greenhouse receives in its final reels.
The Greenhouse showcases some great, well-earthed performances from its cast, especially Jane Watt, and show Thomas Wilson-White is a filmmaker to keep an eye on.
By Chad Armstrong
The Greenhouse is part of 35th BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival. For more details and to purchase tickets and passes head to the official website.