A heartfelt if slightly baggy essay on grief and the way people deal with it The Truth About Emanuel is a delicate and visually arresting drama. Writer director Francesca Gregorini allows us to dip our feet in the world of title character Emanuel but, despite its good intentions, you’re often left feeling slightly cold.
Emanuel, played with captivating confidence and dry delivery by Kaya Scodelario, is a teenager mopping her way through life. Living with her devoted father Dennis, a typically warm Alfred Molina, and her step-mother Janice (Frances O’Connor) Emanuel informs us that the death of her mother, during her own birth, is nothing more than a footnote in her life. And yet the evidence is quite the contrary, everything she does seems to lead back to this moment and as such defines the depressed and isolated individual she has become.
Enter Jessica Biel’s warm and inviting Linda as her new neighbour. While Linda bears a resemblance to Emanuel’s mother it seems she has just as many issues as Emanuel but has found a coping mechanism to stave off unwanted attention. Together the pair form a bond and enter into a make-believe world of their own where the tragedies of their lives can be manipulated to suit their every desire.
Linda, her house a warm and comfy sanctuary, plays the role of the dotting mother while Emanuel, a morbid and almost less cartoonish incarnation of Wednesday Adams, becomes the gatekeeper to their precious world.
There are parallels here with Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and perhaps more importantly Craig Gillespie’s Ryan Gosling starrer Lars And The Real Girl. It’s often captivating and mysterious with the occasional flight of fantasy bringing with it a visual flourish that is easily the film’s strongest element.
It doesn’t always work, the tone often hinting at something much darker, more Blue Velvet lurking behind the ideal world created that Gregorini seems happy to hint at but never fully commit to. As such the middle act lags a little, going through the motions as opposed to furthering the narrative or developing the characters. A romantic subplot feels like nothing more than a distraction when Emanuel and Linda’s relationship offers more than enough potential to engage you for the duration.
Like the metaphor of water at the heart of the film, The Truth About Emanuel ebbs and flows but does so with enough charm and beguiling characters to keep you swimming with the tide.