Since the earthquake hit Christchurch in New Zealand, its powerful effects can be seen everywhere in the city, and in some places the damage seems irreparable. One of those places is where sixteen-year-old Laura Chant (Erana James) lives, with her single mother (Melanie Lynskey) and five-year-old brother Jacko (Benji Purchase), but the event appears to have attracted unwanted attention. One day on the journey from school, she and Jacko meet a middle-aged man named Carmody Braque (Timothy Spall) who seems to have a strange hold over them, which Laura resists. However, this is not down to his personal charisma, it's down to a supernatural force he is employing...
The author Margaret Mahy was much-beloved in her native New Zealand, becoming a local celebrity thanks to her children's books and mission to bring her stories to those children by making personal appearances to read to them. She thoroughly believed in the value of the written word, and could back up that faith with real talent, winning awards for her work around the globe, so understandably anyone from the land of the kiwi would have a lot invested in her tales, especially when they came to be adapted to the big screen. The Changeover, as a film, was lumped in with the Young Adult movement of versions of teenage literature, though there were similarities and differences alike.
One difference was an obvious budgetary one: husband and wife directors Stuart McKenzie and Miranda Harcourt didn't have the cash to splash on major effects, so there was something decidedly low key about this in a landscape of bombastic contemporaries. It did deal in big emotions, but the downbeat tone tended to go against bringing them out in the audience, the use of handheld camera throughout delivering a woozy, dreamlike, oddly inebriated feel to the proceedings that may or may not have been intentional. At various points you may be forgiven for losing the thread of what was supposed to be happening, albeit granted it would be clearer if you had read the original book.
With a colour palette ranging from blue to grey to the occasional pale gold, this was not exactly a feast for the eyes, and there was a sense the directors were attempting to ground this yarn in a realism, a realism of relationships that was, as well as the day to day existence of living in post-disaster Christchurch which had still not recovered from the effects of the earthquake. You imagine this was made for the residents of that location first, and if anyone else appreciated what The Changeover had served up then that was a bonus, but the cast were fine and supplied the requisite humanity to what could have been a cold, faraway experience even if you were an avowed fan of Mahy's canon. Whether this adaptation would win any more converts was a different matter, however.
Really this was yet another case of "not as good as the book" syndrome, and its adherents could justifiably point out the bits where points had been altered or left out, though that was the case with any movie using a vivid novel as its source (or even a middling text with a decent setpiece or three). Spall was very strong as the villain, with a charm that can turn suddenly to menace, though Lynskey was stuck with a stock mithering mother role - you imagine she had read the book as a youngster herself and might have hoped for more nuance in the part as it was realised on the screen. Lucy Lawless was there too, as a witch who teaches Laura how to use magic to reclaim her brother once Carmody get his claws in the child, and James and Nicholas Galitzine did their best as the romantic teen couple with special abilities, though she had more to work with than he did. The Changeover slotted in with items like Labyrinth and Mirrormask, cut from the same cloth cinematically, and deserved credit in a post-Millennial genre that was weighed down with hackneyed tropes for approaching them differently.