Directed by: #PhilipHughes
It is rare that a film dealing with the subject of women in a mental asylum can be referred to as heart-warming, but this director somehow pulled it off. Doing away with the classic madwoman narrative where inmates are destructive to themselves and back stabbing towards other women within the narrow confines of their ward, this film manages to portray the journey of a woman towards mental stability as a positive experience.
The Merry Maids of Madness opens with a humorous voice over narration, and also ends by the central character Beatrice breaking the fourth wall by speaking directly to the audience. This is one of very few instances in film where a patient is allowed to tell her own story, unmediated. The ward itself is depicted with a warm colour palette and bright lighting. Rather than appearing claustrophobic or frightening, it is stylistically represented as a nurturing environment for people with various struggles to grow and feel safe in.
A deviation from its predecessors such as ‘Girl, Interrupted’ or ‘Shutter Island’, it is encouraging to see a film where mental institutions are not made to appear frightening or dangerous, but instead function the way they are meant to. The inmates themselves are also not villainised, or portrayed as evil or animalistic. Instead, they are funny caricatures of different Shakespearean characters, a theme which runs throughout the film. There are dramatic renditions of plays enacted in the ward by its more sane members, demonstrating how art can work to heal mental disruption. Upbeat choral medieval music functions as a soundtrack, grounding the audience in a familiar world introduced to them in high school English classes. The plot and characters are theatrical, which makes the film surprisingly and delightfully campy.
The plot of The Merry Maids of Madness shows a classic hero’s journey taking place, as Beatrice grapples with her mental health issues and seriously attempts recovery, alongside trying to help the women she shares a ward with. Rather than fighting and threatening each other due to problems stemming from mental illness, these women show sweet displays of female solidarity, actively attempting to help each other towards recovery. They wrap each other in blankets, give each other hugs, write poems for each other, and throw surprise parties, all with the limited resources available to them.
All the characters are given poignant moments of dialogue that endear them to the audience. Rather than widening the divide between the sane and insane, the film is used to show viewers that our hopes, fears, and desires and not so different from those of people progressing towards stability in a mental hospital, and that they are not terrible or terrifying places.