The Well (1997)


Australia. 1997.


Director – Samantha Lang, Screenplay – Laura Jones, Based on the Novel by Elizabeth Jolley, Producer – Sandra Levy, Photography – Mandy Walker, Music – Stephen Rae, Production Design – Michael Phillips. Production Company – Southern Star Xanadu/The Australian Film Finance Corporation


Pamela Rabe (Hester Harper), Miranda Otto (Katherine), Paul Chubb (Harry Bird), Frank Wilson (Frank Harper)


Spinsterish Hester Harper hires young Katherine as help with her elderly father on her farm in the Australian Outback. A friendship soon grows between the prim, repressed Hester and the young, carefree Katherine, with Hester lavishing gifts upon Katherine. After Hester’s father dies, Katherine persuades her to sell most of the farm off. They start to spend up with reckless abandon, so carelessly that they simply keep the money from the sale of the land in old biscuit tins. While on their way back from a party, they run someone down on the road. With Katherine in hysterics, Hester throws the body down the well. They then find that the dead person was a thief who had robbed the house and that Hester has thrown all the money down the well with him. Katherine starts to go to pieces, insisting that the dead man down the well loves her and that he is going to come after Hester if she tries to stop them.

This Australian drama is a considerable find. In terms of standard generic description, The Well would be placed on the shelves that the videostores label as drama, maybe even the thriller section. However, it also works as a horror story – you could call it a ghost story that doesn’t feature a ghost. While the resolution of the film is mundane, the last twenty or so minutes conjure a far more haunted atmosphere than most ghost stories that do feature supernatural elements ever come near achieving.

Few films today spend such time building up like The Well does. The film is essentially a two-person drama and the characterisations are stunning. The film buzzes with a lesbian attraction that lies just beneath its surface but never directly comes out into the open. In particular, Pamela Rabe is wonderful to watch. Her sense of manneredly repressed propriety is superb and it is wonderful to watch the way the diametrically opposed Miranda Otto warms her up. Rabe’s suppressed feelings come across beautifully – the scene when she learns that Miranda Otto’s friend is coming to stay, where she has to stop the car and run behind a rock to silently scream in order to let her feelings out before returning perfectly composed, is wonderful.

The Well is never less than absolutely captivating during its last twenty minutes. Director Samantha Lang creates a genuinely haunted atmosphere. Miranda Otto’s performance turns downright spooky in her insistence that the man down the well is alive and that he wants to make love to her; and that he is coming for Pamela Rabe to get the keys himself if she does not hand them over. And then there is the genuinely spooky moment where Miranda Otto turns and hands Pamela Rabe a $100 note, saying that the man down the well has given it to her for them to buy some food. Of course, the film is revealed to have a mundane solution in a twist ending that is thrown away almost as an afterthought that leaves one gasping. This is a film that conjures a haunting mood that lingers for a long time.

Samantha Lang next went onto direct The Monkey’s Mask (2000), a detective story featuring a lesbian P.I., and L’Idole (2002), an apartment block relationship drama set in Paris.

(Winner in this site’s Top 10 Films of 1997 list. Nominee for Best Director (Samantha Lang) and Best Actress (Miranda Otto) at this site’s Best of 1997 Awards).