Film: Paradise Hills

January 26, 2020

Moments into Paradise Hills (2019), I was definitely rooting for it. It’s an unusual, attractive, and lavish film with a unique feminist science fiction bent, and its opulent look and weird vibe kept me interested throughout. Unfortunately, the script lets it down rather abysmally, particularly in the closing act, when the film loses control of its tone and its world.

The story takes place on a nebulously situated island, which appears to be a retreat for wealthy, wayward girls. Our viewpoint patient is Uma (Emma Roberts), whose family sent her there to “prepare” her for an upcoming marriage to a sleazy businessman. Uma, whose memory is holey and who isn’t particularly fond of her imprisonment in a “fascist boarding school,” nonetheless goes through the motions of the resort’s therapy, as directed the Duchess (Milla Jovovich). But as her stay in this affected neo-Victorian retreat continues, Uma — with he help of fellow rehabilitating inmates Chloe (Danielle Macdonald), Yu (Awkwafina), and Amarna (Eiza Gonz├ílez) — starts to realize the place may not be all that it seems.

Paradise Hills is a striking production, with gorgeous cinematography, elaborate and inventive costumes, and opulent set-design. It looks and feels like a fancy new version of The Prisoner, but charged with contemporary feminist themes. Initially, anyway, it builds an intriguing skiffy mystery as this unnerving, funhouse-mirror spa for the upper crust hints at an unreal world beyond, and sinister motives underneath. Unfortunately, though, the film is better at building mystique than maintaining it. The longer the story progresses, the clunkier the dialogue sounds and the flimsier the world-building looks. After engaging the viewer’s trust with an interesting ramp-up, it betrays that trust by revealing just how incomplete the writers’ grasp is of their narrative and their world design. First-time director Alice Waddington delivers an impressive vision to the wild scenario, and the film shouldn’t damage the reputations of its engaged cast. But I do wish they’d all had a sounder script from which to work.