‘Elyse’ Is an Admirable Debut Even if It Fails Miserably…

by Chris van Dijk

Sir Anthony Hopkins is a legend. The majesty of his onscreen presence is undeniable. With his voice and deep eyes, he automatically commands intellectual respect; unsurprisingly, he hasn’t been, or at least not to my recollection, cast as a dimwit.

Despite his erudite appearance, he doesn’t possess any hubris. On all accounts, he’s surprisingly humble, he even seems to live outside the snobbery of the Hollywood elite. On Twitter, you can be a witness to his wacky sense of humor, making funny voices, and playing with his cat. In interviews, he often reminisces about his anti-social past, how badly he performed in school. He never thought he would reach such thespian heights. Movingly, he also stated in interviews that he has an old childhood picture in his phone and occasionally he would look at this confused little boy and tell him, “we did okay kid, we did okay!”

Growing up watching his movies, seeing him age like fine wine, he’s become a sentimental icon to me. I’m happy to see he’s still going strong, even reaching his eighties, working nonstop, and still, receiving countless accolades. His starring role in the upcoming, The Father, will likely impress many critics.

Besides his acting, he’s also proven himself to be a proficient painter and musician. And it’s apparent from interviews and documented clips, whether it’s for acting, painting, or music, that he has a genuine fondness and respect for art.

I hadn’t heard much about Elyse before its release, only that his wife, Stella Hopkins, directed the film. Looking at the credits, however, I think it’s safe to assume Elyse was a passion project for both of them. The couple shares multiple credits for the film. Stella both directs her husband and has helmed the story along with Audrey Arkins, while Anthony not only co-stars but also composed its soundtrack. Whatever the genesis of this project, since Stella is the film’s director and had conjured up the story (although story credits are often more complicated than meets the eye), just to be fair, we should assume her to be the author of the film’s virtues or flaws.

And unfortunately, this feature-film debut, even with its noble intentions and some stellar photography, is rough from beginning to end.

Only Half of the Story…

Elyse (Lisa Pepper), a rich housewife, likes to wander aimlessly by herself throughout the day, musing about her existence.  Her husband, Steven (Aaron Tucker), is a workaholic lawyer and has no idea what she is up to. When she returns home, her mood swings from loving, to depressive, to sometimes even aggressively paranoid. She seems especially annoyed with the presence of Carmen (Tara Arroyave), the temp to her husband and daughter to her nanny, Julia (Julieta Ortiz), and even suspects Carmen of having an affair with her husband. Steven has no idea how to handle her constantly switching temperament, and suggests, via recommendation from a colleague, for her to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Philip Lewis (Anthony Hopkins).

But what exactly is going on with Elyse? What is really afflicting her? Why doesn’t her husband want to spend time with her? Has there been a history of mental illness?

Things become clearer during a particularly awkward dinner scene, in which Elyse gets embarrassingly drunk and has a mental breakdown. From then on, the story takes a drastic turn…

“Oh Boy, This is Going to Be Rough…”

“People would rather live in homes regardless of its grayness”… I knew I was in trouble when this was Elyse‘s opening line. The delivery is so painfully earnest, so full of itself with its assumed profundity, I had to roll my eyes.

But I wanted to give the film the benefit of the doubt, even though I already had a bad feeling. When there was finally a scene of awkward dialogue between characters, my fears were confirmed: “Oh boy, this is going to be rough…”

Similar to Anthony Hopkins’ directorial debut, Slipstream, Elyse dives into the troubled mind of its protagonist, though explaining the extend of Elyse’s internal issues would mean giving away a huge spoiler. But while Slipstream was more experimental and easy-going, a surreal exploration of the creative process as well as a satire on the Hollywood industry, Elyse is a completely solemn affair.

It’s a lofty, ambitious debut. It would be difficult even for an experienced director. It even features a more abstract narrative structure. It’s understandable when you see it, but to point it out would mean spoiling something critical. Let’s just say that it happens when the film’s specific black-and-white photography changes halfway through, and once that does, it changes the whole nature of the story. A revelation changes everything, and this might either intrigue you and gain your interest again, or lose it completely. In my humble opinion, the film’s second half is superior to the first half, even though the black-and-white photography is gorgeous.

There are pretty meandering dream sequences, scenes that necessarily don’t take the plot forward. Elyse is character-driven. Its characters have intimate conversations about the human condition. It’s filled with big themes. It tries to be true to life, there’s a sense there won’t be a neat resolution to the story.

Things like this are commendable. A different approach should be respected. It’s certainly not a predictable film. But the script, the cast, and its directing cannot fulfill its lofty pretensions…

Anthony Hopkins

The marketing poster for Elyse is a little disingenuous. Hopkins’ forlorn presence on the poster seems to suggest that of secondary importance to its title character, Elyse. In actuality, Hopkins’ role is small, not insignificant, but not of great importance. Other supporting characters, like the husband or the maid’s daughter, are of greater importance to the narrative. Hopkins presence is welcome, but ultimately not needed.

Admittedly, he’s the best actor in the film, as is often the case — and it’s especially not difficult this time around with this cast of amateur performers. Even when he doesn’t do much, such as in this film, his eloquent delivery keeps you hooked to the screen.

Elyse was probably funded simply by the promise of his onscreen involvement. Plastering his name and face on the poster will likely be the cause for people wanting to see it — as was the case for me.

I’ve been aware of his love of music for a while. As a musician, he’s shown to be quite talented. For Elyse, he’s composed a sweeping, melodramatic jazzy score. Individually, it’s nice to listen to, but in the film, especially with its languid pace, it can be distracting. At times, the music swells up even if nothing much is happening. Occasionally it works, but overall, it’s an overbearing presence that fails to elevate the story’s emotional components. Stella seems to aim for a quiet, meditative drama, but her husband’s soundtrack seems to have been composed for an entirely different film.

Lisa Pepper

A film like Elyse hinges on its central performance. Even if the script is clunky — and my god, it is — a strong lead performance might salvage it. Unfortunately, the title character is played by Lisa Pepper.

Now, I don’t want to be mean. Lisa Pepper is a gorgeous presence on screen. I guess it can be assumed she’s a friend of Anthony, since she also co-starred in Slipstream, and perhaps most of the blame can be given to Stella’s directing. Even so, if you are going to watch this film, prepare for the occasional cringe. There’s such an unnaturalness to her line delivery, it becomes fascinating. You can see she is really, really trying, but she just doesn’t have the acting chops to pull it off. Pepper’s performance occasionally reaches a “so bad, it’s good” level. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her.

To be fair, it’s a complicated role to begin with, even for a highly experienced actor. Admittedly, her performance becomes better in the second half. To explain why would mean spoiling something, but let’s just say in the second half she’s doing more emoting, rather than delivering the half-assed lines from the screenplay. It’s my humble opinion that she probably can act, given proper directorial guidance. I can see somewhat why they would cast her. Something is mesmerizing about her, something that goes beyond someone’s physical appearance. Perhaps it’s a grace only some people are born with. Unfortunately for poor Lisa, she got stuck with first-time director, Stella Hopkins.

The rest of the cast doesn’t fare much better. Hopkins, as stated, is perfectly fine in the role. The role requires Hopkins to be nothing more than a figure of authority and in a way, it’s a shame that he doesn’t receive the chance to chew the scenery or show any range of emotion other than strict professionalism.

Aaron Tucker, as the stoic husband struggling with his wife’s unpredictability, is also miscast. Again it’s a difficult role to pull off, and to be fair, occasionally, he hits the right emotional beats. But overall, he just can’t elevate the lackluster material. The same can be said for nearly everyone else in the cast. All of them are uneven, though Fran Tucker is particularly bad as Elyse’s combative mother. It might be due to poor direction, but basically everything she says sounds off.

Annoyingly Competent

A part of me feels bad for being this harsh. A part of me even wants to respect this film for its depiction of mental illness. It’s obvious Stella Hopkins and Audrey Arkins are knowledgeable about mental illness, and how it can afflict not just the individual, but family members or friends. It’s also one of the few films that show ECT therapy in a more rightfully positive light, while most films demonize it for being barbaric — a relic from a more savage past when doctors tortured their patients.

I even feel a filmmaker like Ingmar Bergman, a master of psychologically fraught character studies, would have respected its narrative structure and the slight twist in the second half. But Bergman knew how to write realistic characters and wield complex themes in his human stories. He knew how to make the philosophical banter sound convincing, like an earnest conversation between two people.

I’m not expecting any filmmaker to be like Bergman (how could they?), and I commend the ambition of Elyse, but it just doesn’t work. A rewrite was necessary. The dialogue is filled with a sense of pseudointellectualism that would have sounded great if Hopkins delivered it — just see what Hopkins can do with the overwritten dialogue in Westworld — but most of its overwrought lines are delivered by castmembers who are wholly incapable of offering any weight.

In a way, I wish Elyse was less competent. If the film didn’t have the production values, the wondrous photography, or the presence of Anthony Hopkins, but had the same cast and half the budget, it would have been top-tier cringe entertainment. The poor casting and misguided directing, alongside its overambitious screenplay and awkward lines, could have made this a classic for “so bad, it’s hilarious entertainment“.

Alas, what we have is a respectable failure instead. Let’s hope I’m luckier next time.

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1 comment

Nick Kush December 16, 2020 - 6:28 pm

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