Based on the 1986 novel by English-born, Australian-based, award-winning novelist Elizabeth Jolley, this sublimely creepy, low-key film is not for all tastes. But The Well casts a haunting spell, as its main characters spiral into shared madness on a small plot of land in the Australian outback.

Hester Harper (Pamela Rabe), a rangy, unfussy woman in her 40s, has lived her whole life on the farm owned by her elderly father, doing errands, running the household and tending to her increasingly frail parent's needs. Afflicted by a clubfoot and solitary by nature, Hester is superficially contented with her lot. But there's restlessness beneath her placid surface, and it asserts itself in her hiring of Katherine (Miranda Otto) to work for the family as a maid. Sullen and impulsive, Katherine is clearly unsuited to life on an isolated farm. But Hester, desperate for companionship, bends over backwards to keep the girl happy, buying her gifts, indulging her moods and catering to her every whim. After Hester's father dies, she sells the farm rather than oversee its day-to-day running, and the two women move to a small cottage on the outskirts of the former Harper property. Against the strenuous objections of her sales agent, an old family friend, Hester insists on keeping the money in the house, hidden in biscuit tins and linen sacks.

Further isolated from mainstream society, the women retreat into a world of their own, directionless and unchecked by mundane realities like having to earn a living; inspired by Hester's nostalgic memories of a childhood trip to Europe with her German governess, they talk dreamily about traveling abroad-perhaps even to America. Hester's behavior takes on a subtly unbalanced tone; cut loose from the moorings of her constrained life as a dutiful daughter, her ever-more-obsessive relationship with Katherine has both maternal and erotic overtones. The younger and apparently guileless Katherine seems to blossom under Hester's attentions, but clearly yearns for the pleasures of popular culture and the company of people her own age. Is she staying with Hester out of genuine affection, or because she has designs on the vulnerable older woman's money?

A macabre crisis pushes their relationship to the breaking point. Katherine persuades Hester to drive her to a dance in town, but insists on taking the wheel when they return home, even though she's been drinking. On a darkened road, they hit something; hoping that it's a kangaroo, Hester checks the car's grill and sees that they've killed a man. Hester dumps the body down an abandoned well, but the next morning discovers that all their money is gone. Is it down the well with the body of the man they soon learn was probably the thief who robbed their neighbors? Worse, is it possible that the man is still alive, wounded and lying in the darkness at the bottom of the well? Katherine claims to have heard him crying out, and seems to be slipping into the grip of some bizarre delusion that she loves this man she's never seen.

Jolley's claustrophobic story-a hard-to-film mood piece expertly adapted by Laura Jones (An Angel at My Table, The Portrait of a Lady)-recalls D.H. Lawrence's novella The Fox, but first-time feature director Samantha Lang makes it something all her own, a serene but intensely disturbing examination of folie a deux, shot by cinematographer Mandy Walker in cool, eerie shades of blue. The narrative is deceptively simple, punctuated by leisurely shots of the Australian landscape, but the intensity of Otto's and Rabe's performances is absolutely unnerving. Lang punctuates Hester and Katherine's gradual retreat into their fantasy world with off-kilter and occasionally startling images: Hester's dream of being bound to the kitchen chair by her own long, snake-like braid is particularly hard to shake. And while there's a strong undercurrent of lesbian eroticism to the relationship between the women (reinforced by Katherine's ambiguous references to the close friend who writes her letters from prison), Lang chooses not to make it explicit. You could argue that this strategy is a concession to homophobic sensibilities, but it would be a foolish argument. Lang's discretion reinforces the feeling that the bond between the women is too fragile to withstand any scrutiny or analysis.

--Maitland McDonagh