Making his feature-length debut, director Simon Ross proves a capable genre helmer with The Portrait, which, initially, expresses its terror through the artwork that sits in the attic (where else?) of the expansive mansion that serves as the film’s lead location.
Why it proves unsettling to the film’s tortured heroine, Sofia (Natalia Córdova-Buckley, committed to the material with a ferocity), is because the canvas bares a striking resemblance to her catatonic husband, Alex (Ryan Kwanten). Family members can always be seen in others – she’s told the portrait is of his great-grandfather – but it’s far too identical for Sofia to not be a little concerned, and because screenwriter David Griffiths is aware of the genre tropes and beats, it isn’t long before Sofia’s questioning her own sanity regarding the physical and psychological presence of the portrait.
Though the film would like us to think Sofia is a devoted wife and carer to Alex, we’re quickly privy to her secret – that she’s actually the one responsible for his brain injury, the result of a marital tiff that resulted in him being struck by a car. Her desperation for him to garner any function seems to stem from both her guilt and her love, and that inner turbulence that she combats adds a layer of emotional resonance that helps deepen what, on the surface, could be dismissed as just a haunting-like narrative.
That being said, Griffiths and Ross are aware the film needs to lean into such genre staples, so Sofia starts inquiring further about the portrait, uncovering that the man supposedly in the frame was a violent sort, a fact that only unnerves her as she feels the vastness of the house play tricks on her and the portrait’s eyes watch her wherever she goes. Alex’s cousin, Mags (Virginia Madsen, having a great time with her outline), and the estate’s well-spoken gardener, Brookes (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), are Sofia’s only main sense of human interaction, but as she starts to feel her sanity deteriorate, so too does her trust in them.
Flirting with a supernatural element to add confusion to both Sofia’s view of events and ours as audience members, The Portrait enjoys toying with the psychological knot at its core. The film can’t entirely escape the standard bump-in-the-night scares or haunted house musings the genre gives way to, but Córdova-Buckley, who dominates practically every frame, creates someone we wholly care for throughout.
With a curveball ending that asks more questions that it may answer, and bathes all that came before in an even more tragic layering for the in-future of this film’s universe, The Portrait manages to appear as a fresh piece of art thanks to the sum of all its creators within.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Portrait is available in the United States on Digital and On Demand from December 8th, 2023. An Australian release is yet to be determined.