Review: 'Winchester'

Helen Mirren to star in supernatural take on Winchester Mystery House
Helen Mirren stars as Sarah Winchester in the forthcoming film 'Winchester,' slated for release in 2018.

The renowned Helen Mirren is playing one of the strangest denizens in the history of this valley, Sarah Winchester. Slated for a 2018 opening, Winchester stars Mirren and will feature scenes shot on the premises of San Jose's Winchester Mystery House.

Mirren, along with identical twin directors Michael and Peter Spierig (Predestination) were recently in town to do location photography—shooting in the actual rooms of the strange, 160-room Victorian home, flying drones to get sky views and meeting with the press. Soon, the ensemble returns to the Spierigs' native Australia to complete the film in Melbourne. There, they've built a replica version of the house. Nearby open fields will mimic the valley as it was in 1906.

Winchester's mansion, named Llanada Villa ("Flatland House"), is encroached by development today. Across the boulevard is a shiny, three-story office building with the word SPLUNK on it.

Face the house in its front yard and see topiary, a magnificent Canary Island date palm and several fountains. The house is rich with beveled glass and fish-scale shingles. The conical "witch's hat" sits atop a corner of the pile. Inside this wooden nose cone, Winchester held her seances. It is, the tour guide claimed, a room the night-watch guards prefer to avoid.

It's quite dark in Winchester's house. Inside, one crouches like a miner, climbing up the switchback half-steps that the poor woman had built to favor her arthritis. In the unfinished corridors, through which one scuttles like a rat in the walls, a gradual feeling arises that it might be healthier to be outside.

In a meeting after the tour, Mirren and the Spierigs didn't spoil the plot, but locals knew the background. In the Gilded Age, Winchester came from back east. She was in mourning for husband and her child. Her vast fortune came from that most effective killing machine, the Winchester rifle. A medium allegedly told the widow that continued construction on her mansion could baffle the Indian ghosts slain by her husband's weapons. For 36 years, night and day, the workmen never stopped. In this fictionalized version, a psychiatrist (Jason Clarke) comes to visit. He begins to suspect there are some uninvited guests with them.

"You'll see why," Mirren said at the small press conference, "but there's a reason why she needs him in the house. She chooses him."

It's not every day that you get to see the queen, is it? All eyes were on the actress, in silver and gray with silver hair. I wondered if she had any belief in the supernatural. "No," Mirren said, firmly. "But I believe that human beings are infinitely driven by the power of their imaginations, above all else. And that power is endless."

Earlier, Mirren had said, "The whole question about Sarah is 'Why?' I don't know if she was superstitious. All I could think of was that she had a feeling of guilt or empathy for the people who had died by this very thing that had made her very rich. The part of Sarah is an incredible gift, it's like playing the queen. There is so much known about her, and yet at the center is a character of utter mystery. For an actress trying to get an understanding of what this person is, there is some research material."

The Spierigs cite Mary Jo Ignoffo's Captive of the Labyrinth as inspiration. "But there's nothing like coming to this house and feeling the personality of the person who created it. The charm of this house is that it has big open spaces, and yet it seems quite tiny inside. There's a sense of claustrophobia for such a large place. I'm sure you experienced it today. In a minute, you're down the rabbit hole. There's different proportions, and colors. There's a lot of light, but so much shadow."

The movie should have room not just for the speculation on Winchester's motives, but also for some honor for the author of this massive building. "Building this house was her art," Mirren argued. Sarah Winchester was a successful farmer. Some like to sneak her into the list of valley innovators, given her talent as a grower, and all the modern innovations she had in her building. Within the framework of a thriller genre as surefire as Winchester rifles, Winchester may be the first chance for the movies to commemorate this haunted, driven woman's spirit.

Winter 2018

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