With the Oscars just around the corner, I recently saw a much-nominated new film, Room, and an real oldie, Gaslight. Darned if they didn’t make a great pairing, with several elements in common. So I’m going to compare and contrast, as my teachers used to say.
Gaslight started as a hit 1938 play by British dramatist Patrick Hamilton. The premise of this period thriller is that a husband who has gotten away with murder tries to convince his young wife of her own insanity so that he can keep on searching for the missing jewels that belonged to his victim. When the play transferred to Broadway, under the title Angel Street, the murderous spouse was played by none other than Vincent Price. A 1940 British film adaptation much admired by critics was suppressed when Hollywood decided to launch its own version.
In 1944 Gaslight became a major M-G-M release, directed by the great George Cukor. It was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Black-and-White Cinematography. Charles Boyer was nominated for playing the evil Gregory Anton, as was Angela Lansbury (in her film debut) for her role as a cheeky chambermaid with her own reasons for working against the mistress of the house. That fragile young mistress, Paula, was played by Ingrid Bergman, who won her first Oscar for her pains. Cedric Gibbons’ elegant Victorian art direction was also honored by Oscar voters.
To sum up, Gaslight is the story of a clever but sinister man who marries in order to take advantage of his new wife’s ownership of the house where he believes his victim’s jewels are hidden. While making a great show of being solicitous of Paula’s health, he cuts her off from human companionship and undermines her faith in her own sanity. It’s an ugly story, despite its attractive Victorian surroundings, but Room (adapted by Emma Donoghue from her own prize-winning 2010 novel) is far uglier still. Maybe that fact says something about our troubled age.
In Room there’s no marriage, and no pretense. The character played by Brie Larson, known as Ma, is even more trapped than Paula, but it is not psychological wiles that keep her confined. She is a victim of abduction and rape; for seven years she’s been locked by her captor inside a garden shed fitted out with minimal cooking and toilet facilities. She must look to the man she has labeled “Old Nick” for foodstuffs and other bare necessities; in return she must submit to him sexually, night after night. He even toys with her, when she shows any sign of resistance, by cutting off electricity, leaving her in a physically precarious state. Her situation may have made her distraught, but she’s always fully aware of the horrors afflicted upon her.
Of course, what makes all the difference for Ma is the presence of her five-year-old son, Jack, Though born of rape, he is completely and totally hers, and she devotes all the energy she can muster to nurturing, teaching, and protecting him. Both book and film are essentially told from Jack’s perspective, that of a bright child who has never realized there’s a wide world outside of the place he calls Room. The filmmakers’ challenge, brilliantly achieved, is to create an environment as seen through Jack’s eyes, then allow us to look beyond what Jack can grasp to give us a glimpses of his mother’s very adult challenges. In Gaslight, Paula only comes into her own when a visitor from Scotland Yard fortuitously checks out her situation. Ma, though, must solve her problems on her own.