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Darkest Miriam Review: Abstract, Moving Film

A couple walks down the road in the film Darkest Miriam

In her abstract, yet moving new film Darkest Miriam, Naomi Jaye employs a historic Italian opera to tell a modern story about loss, grief and courage.

Director: Naomi Jaye
Genre: Drama, Romance, Mystery
Run Time: 87′
Tribeca Premiere: June 9-14, 2024
Release Date: TBA

In the wake of grief, we can find ourselves living in what feels like shells of our former identity. Surrounded by a clouded reality and potentially regressing into who we were long before we suffered loss. There’s a particular innocence that rears its head in times of loss, usually coupled with fear about how to move forward.

Naomi Jaye’s Darkest Miriam, based on Martha Baillie’s novel “The Incident Report”, is a story of finding our way out of grief and finding the courage to move forward in spite of ourselves.  

Miriam Gordon (Britt Lower, of Severance) is a 35-year-old librarian working in the suburbs of Toronto, consumed by a fog of grief that has never seemed to leave her following the passing of her father. Due to her profession, Miriam bears witness to the endless eccentricities of the recurring characters that frequent her branch, many of which she has nicknamed and imagined lives for outside of their devotion to the public library. Miriam’s days are fairly bland, sorting books, helping patrons and writing incident reports as needed. Her primary excitement comes from interacting with a foreign cab driver, Janko (Tom Mercier), who she is romantically interested in. However, her drab routine is soon interrupted when she starts discovering notes left throughout the library by a mystery writer. 

Even more strange, the notes are written in the voice of the titular character of the historic Italian opera Rigoletto. Rigoletto is an opera about a court jester who hides his daughter away from society in order to protect her from the licentious behavior of men. However, in the end, Rigoletto is unable to keep his daughter hidden away from the world and gets his daughter killed before she has the chance to truly live. The mysterious writer of these ominous notes is not only convinced that he in fact is Rigoletto, but that Miriam is his daughter who he must protect from the ugliness of the world. 

Once the notes begin to appear, Miriam’s cautiousness heightens but in a moment of distraction while walking along the side of the road near a construction site, a biker passing by knocks her into a freshly dug ditch. While lying in the ditch, something changes within Miriam, making her want to emerge from the grief that holds her back. 

A man and a woman stand in front of each other looking sad in the film Darkest Miriam
Darkest Miriam (Game Theory Films / 2024 Tribeca Film Festival)

The titular character in Rigoletto tries to protect his daughter by shielding her from the outside world, though we never meet Miriam’s father we understand through this comparison he must have acted the same way. Miriam wants to experience the world in the wake of her father’s death, but she has been frightened into hiding from it instead. It is only after surviving the fall, the shock of experiencing a molecule of the dangers out in the world which she has been warned so adamantly about, that Miriam feels she can face her greatest fears and actually lead a full life. 

Her father, obsessed with his collection of used books, has trapped Miriam in a gilded cage. She now works in a library, clearly a surrogate of comfort reminding her of the home her father raised her in. While Miriam is surrounded by books describing the joy, beauty and heartbreak of the world she does not have the tools to be a part of. All she can do is keep the stories in order since she was never given the opportunity to seek the greater motivations of life herself. 

The central struggle of the film then becomes Miriam navigating life out in waters she doesn’t understand the depths of. Janko is a living, breathing being who can cause her real harm only because he holds a part of her heart. In order to make their relationship work, she needs to let go of the worries passed down by her father to embrace the promise of her future. Haunted by these notes reminding her of this opera her father once took her to as a girl, she struggles to move forward into the future while holding so tightly onto her past. 

Darkest Miriam is not a film that is easily digestible. If you are unfamiliar with the Rigoletto opera, an opera that is also not particularly prevalent in modern popular culture, most of the film’s depth will go over your head. The film never explains what the opera is about, it only briefly mentions the daughter’s damned fate. You must decide your interpretation of most of the conceptual aspects of the film’s connection to Rigoletto. 

There is still meaning to be pulled from Darkest Miriam without the contextual knowledge of the opera the film constantly references, but it is far less accessible and harder to comprehend. The entire plot line explaining her fears and relationship with her father goes unanswered, leaving audiences believing the film they just saw is trying too hard to be abstract.

Additionally, the novel the film is based on has much more mysticism around who is leaving the ominous notes written in the voice of Rigoletto. Darkest Miriam seems less committed to building this aspect of the film up as a mystery and instead focuses its efforts on the central relationship between Miriam and Janko. This doesn’t make the film less impactful, it simply puts the primary focus on another prong of the story, but it does leave the viewers wanting more from the mystery portion of the plot. 

The film’s ending is open to interpretation in a way that does not shock you once you learn that Charlie Kaufman is the film’s executive producer. He often champions and creates stories that leave it up to audiences to draw connections and create their own interpretations of the stories they are watching. This is not what weakens the potency of the film by any means, what weakens it is the consistent references to a play that is not well known but is absolutely vital to the understanding of the story as a whole. 

Darkest Miriam is a story of fatherly love, all-consuming grief and finding the courage to put yourself out there in the face of fear. Layered with fantastical performances by Britt Lower and Tom Mercier as the film’s central couple as well as an eccentric editing style, Naomi Jaye’s film is unlike anything you have ever seen before. While by no means a conventional way of telling a story, the approach of the film is definitely an impactful one. It’s the story about coming out of whatever fog life has cast on you, and walking out of the film you are sure to feel a little more emboldened to do so. 

Darkest Miriam premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 9-14, 2024 and will be screened at the 2024 Fantasia Film Festival.

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