We are such stuff as dreams are made on.
Young Anna Madden (Charlotte Burke) pisses off her teacher (Jane Bertish) and goes home sick. In her delirium, she begins drawing a picture of a house that works its way into her dreams. As her illness gets worse and worse, her mother (Glenne Headly) worries a great deal, but more worrying for the audience are her dreams of a boy Marc (Elliott Spiers). These dreams turn out to have some substance as Anna’s doctor – Dr. Sarah Nicols (Gemma Jones) – also has a patient named ‘Marc’ who’s getting worse….
This film is far more complex than usual.
First, if the story is taken purely literally, it’s the story of a sick girl who somehow comes in telepathic contact with a sick boy in a world she’s created. He’s not aware he’s in an alternate reality, and the longer he stays there, getting better, the worse he gets in the real world. Eventually, after he’s fully recovered in the dream world, he dies in the real world. This explains how Anna knows about the real Marc and why the drawing he left at the end is in the real world. It’s a story about how a young boy and young girl become friends and come to understand his death.
However, there’s more to it than this.
Anna, as is common for young women, has some daddy issues. Her absent father (Ben Cross) has left an impression on her and he becomes an important character in the fantasy world. In the paperhouse world, the father is violent, destructive and frighteningly evil as he seeks to destroy her happiness with his hammer. We’re talking Thor action here. In some ways this could be the overprotective father who watches over his little girl, trying to prevent her from growing up into the dangerous world of relationships with boys. A father that’s blind is not the most subtle symbol of a man who refuses to see his daughter as she has become. In other ways it could be a way that she deals with her fears of men and the sex that they bring by looking at her daddy as a less-than-benevolent source of same. How very Freudian. The complexity of the situation with her father makes this film more interesting that it would have been otherwise.
Anna also has problems with her mommy. This is also extremely common in young people, and happens in the real world all the time. Now, that’s important to note, her mother only exists in the real world where she seems to be nothing more than the proverbial wet blanket who goes out of her way to stifle her daughter as best she can. Dealing with a child who’s behaving in a manner most irrational – as children are wont to do – is not easy, but since the father is not in the picture, mom has had to become the sole disciplinarian in the home. Perhaps this is the reason that mom doesn’t appear in the fever dreams of the paperhouse world, she’s nothing to fear, just an obstacle.
The problem with a fantasy in which a real person goes into another world is whether that world is real or not. Here, there’s something really going on as Anna knows details of someone she’s never met, imagines a place she’s never been, and finds a mysterious drawing. The drawing is the only real concrete proof that her dream has a basis in reality, and it shows something supernatural is occurring. The obvious possibility is that Anna and Marc’s dream was powerful enough that it actually affected the real world. While this isn’t a particularly rational possibility, we are talking about children, some of whom do have a problem separating fantasy from reality. For that matter, she could have been fantasizing about the drawing and repeating things she overheard.
A much less pleasant possibility is that much of this film represents young Anna dying in the hospital. This removes the supernatural element … maybe … and explains how it is that Anna is able to know things she shouldn’t as it’s all a part of the same delusion. This also makes the finale make sense in terms of a ‘tunnel of light’ deal. Maybe it’s the other way around and Anna is a part of Marc’s acceptance of his own death. The understanding of death is something that must occur for someone to make the step from childhood to adulthood, and this event in Anna’s life, regardless of the reason for it, really is the end of childhood for her.