[Sundance Review] THE BLAZING WORLD
THE BLAZING WORLD l Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Arguably the precursor to the science fiction we all know and love, Lady Margaret Lucas Cavendish‘s work The Blazing World offers much in the way of exploration and inspiration for the creative mind. Especially when taking into account the surrealist imagery she employed throughout the course of the text. It’s no wonder that in creating her own fantastical cinematic exploration, director Carlson Young drew from Cavendish’s book to create THE BLAZING WORLD. While creating visuals that carry their own uniqueness and showcase Young’s promise in visual direction, the film itself has to battle being snuffed out by its thin narrative and underwhelmingly delivered character arcs.

The audience is introduced to a young Margaret Winter, who leaves her twin sister upon hearing her parents fight. Unfortunately, this results in her being too late to keep her sister away from the pool, which results in her sister drowning. From then on, Margaret (Carlson Young) is haunted by the drowning of her sister. Her parents, Alice (Vinessa Shaw) and Tom (Dermot Mulroney), are left further fractured. Now, as an adult, Margaret is struggling to stay afloat, with the thought of suicide forever at the back of her mind. It isn’t until she is called back home to handle her parents’ move from her childhood home that reality converges in and she must reconcile with her own demons before it’s too late.

Young’s Margaret Winter is trapped in adolescence, seeming childlike and fragile with neuroses to match. While it is clear the character is in pain, it’s difficult to not feel disconnected by what is seen on screen. And, as Margaret continues on her journey, overcoming obstacles along the way, there’s no indication on both page and in Young’s performance that indicates the changes the audience might expect in such a character. Udo Kier is both ominous and nurturing as Lained. While helpful, the demon has an agenda and Kier captures this duality well. Vinessa Shaw’s Alice Winter is both terrifying and sad as she tries to keep this traumatized, hurting family together. Dermot Mulroney’s Tom Winter is subtly frightening as the overwhelming embodiment of toxic masculinity and rage. While THE BLAZING WORLD is more plot-driven than performance-driven, it is clear that there were strong performances throughout the course of the film’s duration.

Visually, THE BLAZING WORLD is stunning. It is the clearest indication, at least to me, of the connection between the film and its source material. From the time the film begins, the fantasy elements are slowly established. It does take time for Young’s Margaret to fully dive into the dream world that exists within the world of the film. Choice edits in the film prior to Margaret’s full immersion maintain that dreamlike, reality-blurring aesthetic. Once Margaret encounters Lained and chases him down, that is when the film’s visual magic truly blooms. Regardless of the indie nature of the film, Young, production designer Rodney Becker, and cinematographer Shane F. Kelly create visual fantastical candy for the viewer. Taken through dark foreboding hallways, looming deserts, and manors with no end, it is clear that Young and company have a distinct visual eye that I honestly can’t wait to see explored in further productions.

Still from THE BLAZING WORLD l Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Unfortunately, the narrative is less “blazing” and more thinly stretched out and a large part of that may have to do with the film initially starting out as a short. There’s much to expand upon adapting a short film into a feature-length entity. Much like I noted from another Sundance entry, Coming Home in the Dark, it is clear where the struggles lie when expanding the script further. In THE BLAZING WORLD‘s case, the audience sees a journey play out onscreen in a fashion similar to such films as LabyrinthThe Neverending Story, etc., but the internal journey that the character Margaret takes onscreen is underdeveloped. This is a result of a lack of development in the script, but also a note towards Young’s performance as Margaret herself as the performance itself reads as undernourished at times.

Another narrative note is that there were scenes that didn’t quite track or seemed randomly tucked in. While THE BLAZING WORLD is meant to show the gradual descent into chaos via Margaret’s fractured mind, at times the execution of evoking this chaos left one stumped. One chunk, in particular, seemed unnecessary and more confusing to the overall narrative. When Margaret goes to visit her paramour and their friends show up, things blur together to create a trippy atmosphere. However, bringing it back to that note about connecting to the audience, there’s a disconnect between what’s happening onscreen as we watch Margaret with these characters and what the gathering is meant to signify for her mind. Perhaps, it is just me who had this particular issue, but it felt like it took away. An example of a chaotic scene cut that did work, though, was when the audience sees Margaret strapped onto a bed, connected to pink-IV drips with pink fluid oozing out of her mouth. Or the cuts to Lained shoving Margaret into the tub. These quick cut moments added to both the visual DNA of THE BLAZING WORLD, but also added further heft to the chaos the audience sees play out onscreen.

As a lover of fantasy first and horror second (blasphemous, I know), Young’s feature debut made me personally excited to see what she could come up with next. Visually reminding of Tarsem Singh’s work (seriously, if you haven’t seen The Fall, rent it whenever it becomes available to stream) and almost reminding of coming-of-age fantasy films of the ’80s, there’s something magical here that’s poking through the dirt. It just needs to be nourished. While I enjoyed the film despite its flaws, other viewers may not be able to shirk off the thin narrative or the moments of chaos that don’t translate as well on screen. With finessing of future narratives and working a bit more on connecting the characters more with the audience through both performance and via the script, there’s a bright future for Carlson Young in filmmaking.

THE BLAZING WORLD had its world premiere on January 31st at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

Sarah Musnicky
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