Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"One of the most tightly plotted and sharply observed pieces of science fiction to grace our screens for some years." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia

“Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe,” wrote Guy de Maupassant. “It gives back life to those who no longer exist.”

The world as we know it no longer exists in Kelsey Egan’s melancholy début feature. We drift down across a scorched white desert to find the glasshouse, adrift in a little island of green, set apart from the world and seemingly adrift in time. There, mother (a magnificently coiffured Adrienne Pearce) presides over her tight-knit family unit: older girls Bea (Jessica Alexander) and Evie (Anja Taljaard); young Daisy (Kitty Harris) and boy Gabe (Brent Vermeulen). The latter struggles with a significant cognitive disability caused by early childhood exposure to the airborne pathogen known as the Shred, which damages the memory. As we get to know this family, however, we will learn that Gabe’s difficulties do not mean he’s unintelligent – indeed, he sometimes understands what’s going on better than those around him – and that the others are not necessarily as intact as thy seem.

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Clad in floaty white dresses and maintaining a veneer of elegance despite the harshness realities they face (in the opening scenes we see them kill an encroaching stranger and cut him up to fertilise their crops), the girls present an alluring sight to a newcomer (Hilton Pelser) who escapes Bea’s rifle because he prompts her to think of a missing loved one. Stumbling into their garden with a badly injured leg and dependent, at first, upon their care, he will naturally invite comparison’s with Clint Eastwood’s character in The Beguiled, but what is going on here is very different. Mother thinks she might have a use for him. Bea wonders if, perhaps, he is her lost brother – after all, memory can play tricks. To Daisy, he’s an exciting source of new stories. His own agenda is less certain, but Evie and Gabe are on their guard.

Glasshouse as been described by some critics as fantasy, perhaps because it’s so pretty and it draws on the Gothic tradition in both visual and narrative style. In fact it’s one of the most tightly plotted and sharply observed pieces of science fiction to grace our screens for some years. The Devil’s in the details. Egan and co-writer Emma Lungiswa De Wet have been tremendously thorough in their world-building. The ecosystem is carefully worked out – and limited in its capacity (there are shades here of Tom Godwin’s The Cold Equations). Chance remarks and items witnessed in passing tell us something of the story of the pandemic. The details of the disease seem remarkably prescient, though whether that’s lucky or not is open to question. Since the film was made, studies in macaques have revealed an increased number of Lewy bodies in the brain after exposure to Covid-19. Given their relationship to dementia, we too might experience something like the Shred in due course.

Beneath the surface drama, which is itself more complex than it first appears, lurk many questions. In the absence of memory, how do we hold onto our culture, our civilisation? The inhabitants of the glasshouse take refuge in stories and ritual. Every detail changed or elided potentially represents a permanent loss to humanity. Each character approaches these activities with different concerns. Mother is, at least superficially, a stalwart defender of tradition. Gabe is frustrated by the effort involved but fearful of what might happen to him if he loses his memory entirely. Evie – whose name recalls not only the Bible story but also that critical point in human history when everything depended on Mitochondrial Eve – is determined to preserve the truth yet sometimes envies the peace of mind of those who forget. Truth and illusion both have value here as people strive to adapt to a new way of life. And there is another question there. If we don’t forget, can we forgive?

Exquisitely shot with sets whose attractive clutter hides clues and red herrings alike, Glasshouse is destined to linger in the imagination. It’ll be a while before you put on a mask without remembering the distinctive bonnets, covered in clear polythene, which are worn by its protagonists for outdoor work. Don’t be misled by the beauty of it. Everything here is functional. Even the sweeping melodic score is playing games with memory, inviting you to connect the various pieces of a complex puzzle.

Glasshouse is a film which Egan waited many years to make. Screening as part of Fantasia 2021, it’s supposed to be the first of three science fiction films. After you’ve seen it, you’ll be impatiently waiting for the others.

Reviewed on: 17 Aug 2021
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Safe within their glasshouse sanctuary, a family survives a memory-shredding neurotoxin that has poisoned the air outside - until a stranger forces them to confront a truth they have done their best to forget.
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Director: Kelsey Egan

Writer: Emma Lungiswa De Wet, Kelsey Egan

Starring: Jessica Alexander, Hilton Pelser, Brent Vermeulen, Adrienne Pearce, Kitty Harris, Anja Taljaard

Year: 2021

Runtime: 94 minutes

Country: South Africa

Streaming on: Digital

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