The Boathouse Review: Steal from the Best

Is plagiarism fine if you acknowledge it?

“If you’re going to rip somebody off, you pick somebody obscure, right?” asks Barney (Tony Nappo).

“Every great artist has influences and they use pieces of their work and bring it into their own,” replies Dominic (Alan Van Sprang).

“I think that what’s original is what really matters,” says Anne (Michaela Kurimsky). “Art can be subjective and open to interpretation. When someone creates something that no one else has before, it’s like it’s part of their DNA. That can’t be owned by anybody, or else what’s the point of authoring anything at all? If all you’re going to do is repurpose, repackage, and recycle every idea that comes to you…I think it’s dangerous.”

The Boathouse tries to get meta in the above exchange as Barney beefs about a student who plagiarized James Joyce. Unfortunately, as Anne glibly defends the value of original work in a line that inevitably carries darker shadows, The Boathouse highlights its habit for borrowing liberally from stronger works. The screenplay takes Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and blends it with Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. It’s not even subtle with its inspiration. Moreover, as it leans heavily on canonical ghost stories, the plot is immediately predictable.



Rebecca ripped off; James screwed

There’s actually much to admire in The Boathouse as director Hannah Cheesman elevates the material with an eye for atmosphere. Cheesman’s sense for place with the rustic lake house is effective. The Boathouse goes for daytime scares and finds some genuinely unnerving imagery. The bright sunroom that doubles as Anne’s study is especially atmospheric. Its warm sense of serenity contrasts sharply with Anne’s dark psychology.

It’s just unfortunate that the screenplay is so obviously derivative. As Anne takes a new job caring for Dominic’s children—he needs help because his wife, Natalia, disappeared—she finds herself tormented by a moody young boy and trapped in the shadow of Natalia’s ghost. Natalia is/was Anne’s grad studies supervisor, so three guesses where this story will go. No sooner than one call her the Second Mrs. de Winter, Anne gamely assumes Natalia’s position.

Very Henry James, very Rebecca. There’s even the boathouse setting that, like Rebecca, holds a key to the mystery. By all means, steal from the best if crafting a tale about nut-job governesses haunted by dead wives. However, as Dominic suggests, one has to engage with one’s influences. Nothing is more frustrating than half-hearted self-referential plagiarism of obvious sources. But to everyone’s credit, it’s better than the recent adaptations of both The Turn of the Screw and Rebecca.


The Boathouse opens in Toronto at the Carlton on Dec. 10.