Directed by: Elbert van Strien | 112 minutes | thriller | thriller | Actors: Peter Mullan, Thekla Reuten, Emun Elliott, Bill Paterson, Rebecca Front, Sam Hazeldine, Pearl Chanda, Dawn Steele, Marnie Baxter, Elijah Wolf, Elisabet Johannesdottir, Jochum ten Haaf, Geoffrey Newland, Craig McDonald-Kelly, Julian Nest
In 1993 Elbert van Strien graduated from the Film Academy with the short film ‘De marionettenwereld’. An exam film that immediately earned him a Golden Calf and a nomination for the Student Academy Awards. Van Strien wanted to develop the story into a feature film, preferably in English, because in the 25 minutes that an exam film was allowed to last, he could not actually tell the whole story. But as a starting filmmaker you have to be very lucky if you want to make your dream come true immediately. So Van Strien first gained experience with TV work and short films, before making the switch to feature films in 2001. In 2004, a British producer picked up the story that wanted to make the film, with Van Strien as writer and director.
When that did not happen, it took the Dutchman a few years to get the rights back. In 2010, he released the psychological thriller ‘Black Water’, starring Barry Atsma and Hadewych Minis. That film caught the attention of Hollywood star Charlize Theron, who showed interest in making an American remake. Van Strien took the opportunity to also bring his ‘puppet story’ to the attention of his new American connections. At one point, Matt Damon seemed interested in playing the lead role, but those plans also fell through. Financial difficulties and the fact that Van Strien did not want to make too many concessions with regard to the screenplay ensured that the plans were put on hold for longer, but thanks in part to The Film Fund and financiers in Scotland and Luxembourg, ‘Marionette’ (2020) is now finally finished!
Matt Damon is nowhere to be seen. Instead, Van Strien cast Thekla Reuten in the lead role. And if we’re honest, she’s a much better choice for the role of a child psychiatrist who gets into a fight with a mysterious boy who claims to influence fate. After a traumatic event in which her husband (Sam Hazeldine) died, Marianne Winter has left her home country of America, hoping to start a new life in Scotland. Marianne is a feisty aunt, who makes her way through this new environment while drinking whisky. That her predecessor, Dr. McVittie (Peter Mullan), who became so obsessed with one of his young patients that he set himself on fire, doesn’t deter her. On the contrary; it intrigues her immensely. Just like the boy in question, ten-year-old Manny (Elijah Wolf), who claims to be able to make the events come true on his jet-black scratch drawings. What Marianne tries to prevent does happen: Manny gets inside her head and she starts to doubt her own truth and perception.
Van Strien, who wrote the screenplay with Briton Ben Hopkins, makes clever use of Schrödinger’s cat’s thought experiment from quantum mechanics: Manny claims that there is a gun in Marianne’s drawer, ‘but only if you look’. Mind games, play with fate and destiny; ‘Marionette’ is chock full of them. Can Manny actually influence the future? Or is he just a conduit for what the future would bring anyway? When her new boyfriend Kieran (Emun Elliott) becomes the subject of Manny’s drawings, Marianne slowly but surely loses her grip on reality and her life is about to derail.
Ambitions explode with ‘Marionette’; Elbert van Strien has pulled out all the stops to give his film a deeper, psychological layer and even flirts with science with his wink to Schrödinger’s cat. But he also doesn’t shy away from the more clichéd elements that we often see in the psychological thriller genre: mysterious children, crazy doctors in asylums, creepy twists, that work. Through flashbacks, he reveals the personal drama Marianne had to go through, which led her to Scotland. Scotland, here at its most sober and wet, is a great backdrop for this grim thriller. It is bleak and foreboding and death is constantly lurking. Thanks to the Scottish lenders, Van Strien managed to connect some excellent British actors to ‘Marionette’: in addition to Mullan and Elliott, among others Bill Paterson and Rebecca Front. But it’s Reuten and the young Wolf who completely take us over. Reuten is in her element as the grieving Marianne, who is driven completely mad by the mysterious Manny, who is portrayed as elusive and humane by Wolf.
What Van Strien overplays with is the somewhat unbalanced structure of his film: in the beginning it takes too long for the events to really get going, and at the end we get just a few plot twists too much for our choosing. But in general, Van Strien puts down a fascinating psychological thriller, which is at its best when he manages to pull us into the idea that we too are in danger of losing our perception of reality.