First time directors on limited budgets don’t often get as ambitious as Carlson Young does with The Blazing World, and I would imagine they certainly don’t do so during global pandemics—but here we are with a world-building dark fairy tale shot entirely under quarantine. Based very loosely on Margaret Cavendish’s 1666 sci-fi/fantasy novel of the same name, The Blazing World follows Margaret Winter (played by Carlson Young) as she is drawn into an alternate dimension in the hopes of finding her twin sister (who drown when they were 6) still alive. As the story begins, we see 6 year old Margaret and Elizabeth Winter in a dreamy and magical field catching colorful CGI fireflies while their parents, played by Vinessa Shaw and Dermot Mulroney, fight in the house. The setup is quick and effective, showing the viewer just enough to be able to understand Margaret’s trauma. The trauma isn’t all we are shown though, as Elizabeth is drowning Margaret sees a portal to another dimension open up and is beckoned in by a particularly creepy Udo Kier as the enigmatic Lained. Wisely, she doesn’t go, at least not yet.
As we join Margaret again in her twenties, we can see that she is still deeply wounded by her past and looking for ways to deal with or even change it. The dimensional portal she saw as a child has her exploring the metaphysical hoping that her sister is just trapped on another plane and can be saved. Simultaneously her parents, still married somehow, have decided to sell the family home and Margaret must go sift through her childhood things. It’s hard to tell in the setting of the Winters’ home what is real and what is part of this dream world or alternate reality.
Once we enter the alternate realm the visuals are striking, if not a little all over the place. From a desert world, to an off-kilter version of her family home, to a neon box, Young seems to be trying to fit all of her directorial influences in wherever she can, which is a little jarring. As Margaret works through different worlds to complete the quest given to her by Lained, the story peels back the layers of her trauma. At this point almost everything is vague and metaphorical, which might not sit well with some viewers. I enjoyed each world Margaret explored, but perhaps by narrowing in on just one or two realms the narrative would have felt more focused and more detailed.
I found the music particularly effective in this film. When we start out with the children playing, it felt like a bit like the symphonic fairy tale “Peter and the Wolf.” The instruments seemed to be telling the story and pulling the narrative along. Later when Margraet is an adult the vibe becomes more electronic and surreal. The music feels dark and lonely—and very reminiscent of a Twin Peaks episode. This isolated feeling is magnified when Margaret goes to a bar to watch a band with friends and no one is there. As it turns out this scene was changed from how it was originally written to accommodate the need to shoot in quarantine. I found the change worked as an apt metaphor for how we sense that Margaret is feeling. She doesn’t seem to have anyone in her life to lean on.
Another highlight of The Blazing World is the acting. The performances are all very good, and Young commits wholly to her character. Dermot Mulroney is particularly brilliant going from detached father to absolute lunatic as the story calls for it. He is able to convey the pain of unchecked trauma while also being terrifying as an abusive alcoholic. Vinessa Shaw is a bit under-utilized, but does a great job of depicting a wounded wife still trying her best to connect with her remaining daughter.
Ultimately, Margaret Winter is a broken fairy tale princess in a world where she has to be her own hero. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, she starts on a quest solely for herself but realizes that she can only get there by helping and receiving help from others. There are parts of the story that are a little vague and other parts that we linger in for too long, but overall this film is a compelling first outing for Carlson Young and I’m excited to see where she goes from here.