In 1969, an English family consisting of a mother, three sons and a daughter move to their old family manor in America, escaping from some unknown problems but when the mother dies, the eldest son Jack (George MacKay) must do what he can to keep the family safe and together. Along with their newfound friend Allie (Anya Taylor-Joy), the family tries to escape a certain ghost from their past but with something apparently creeping around in the attic, as well as a dogged lawyer on their case, the Marrowbone children are soon pushed to extremes as unknown forces threaten to tear them apart.
For quite a long time, Marrowbone is a little bit of a trudge to get through and as many mysterious story elements are continually thrown in, there’s the fear that the film will end without making proper sense of it all; we have the mystery of just what the family is running from, why they’re not able to look in any mirrors, what monster is being kept in the attic and why they can’t leave the house, except for Jack who apparently can because he’s twenty one. For that long period of time during the first two thirds of the film, Marrowbone appears too disjointed as it tries to juggle its numerous plot elements but it fumbles with the ball and appears a bit too confused and perplexing.
Tone (mis)management is also a bit of an issue as Marrowbone tries to be a horror, a creepy, supernatural ghost story, as well as introducing an element of romance and an overall thread about family togetherness and drama but in the end, there’s an uncertainty as to just what kind of film Marrowbone wants to be as it doesn’t completely pick a lane and ends up lacking cohesion. And in terms of horror, the film comes up short because despite a couple of jarring jump scares, first time director Sergio Sánchez doesn’t build up tension properly and overall chills and scares are nowhere to be found.
Having said all that though, despite all the many overhanging questions and mysteries about just what going on, the third act saves the film because, even though the film ends with a few questions left hanging in the air along with some plot inconsistencies, most of the big questions are answered satisfactorily and I have to admit that it all ended in a way that I wasn’t expecting – with a revelation that immediately calls to mind a certain other Anya Taylor-Joy film released not that long ago.
The acting in this film is solid enough and in particular, Captain Fantastic‘s George MacKay gets the lion’s share of screentime as the protective older brother Jack; he convinces as the ersatz head of the family, determined to do whatever it takes to keep them all together and safe, and he’s decent in both the romance scenes and the moments where he gradually loses his mind. Elsewhere, Anya Taylor-Joy fits right in as the likeable Allie, giving a good performance despite her character not being all that interesting – just the innocent audience surrogate – Kyle Soller is appropriately weaselly and hissable as the troublemaking lawyer and as the other Marrowbone children, Charlie Heaton, Mia Goth and Matthew Stagg are all solid performers without exactly setting the screen on fire. It’s also impressive that they all look so much alike – especially George MacKay and Mia Goth.
On an aesthetic level, Marrowbone is a very good looking film as the production design is appealing; we really get to know the pivotal house and the surrounding areas quite well and it all evokes a certain time period which gives the film a unique quality. And despite a few scenes in the attic where it’s too dark to see anything, the film cinematography is rather striking as cinematographer Xavi Giménez includes several beautiful exterior shots and overall, it looks just like what you’d expect a creepy ghost story to look like; natural light is also greatly used to an impressive extent. Finally, Fernando Velázquez, a J.A. Bayona regular, provides the score and while it is genuinely beautiful at certain points, it also gets a tad too sentimental, contributing to the awkward, mismanaged tone of the film.
In the end, The Secret of Marrowbone is alright, not a bad film at all, but much of it is a long, slow, confusing slog and even though the twist in the tale answers a lot of questions, the plot still could have used some tightening up as it’s all just a bit too messy and incoherent. Not one that you’d remember for very long.