Tribeca Film Festival Part 3: DARKEST MIRIAM review and interview

A man and a woman look at each other in the lamplight
Tom Mercier as JANKO, Britt Lower as MIRIAM in DARKEST MIRIAM

Janko: Tell me a story. Any story.

Miriam: I don't know any stories.

Janko: You are a librarian.

Miriam: Those aren't my stories.

Representation of female librarians in cinema leaves something to be desired. Some of the most iconic librarians across film history include the alternative universe "old maid" Mary (Donna Reed) in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, Marian "Madam Librarian" (Shirley Jones) from THE MUSIC MAN, and no-nonsense Miss Anderson (Georgia Backus) in CITIZEN KANE. Finally in 1999, Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) from THE MUMMY shook up the formula with the portrayal of a beautiful and intelligent librarian that accompanies Rick (Brendan Fraser) across the sands of Egypt. However, that portrayal was hardly realistic of what librarians deal with each day.

Into this conversation comes Miriam (Britt Lower; SEVERANCE) the main character in the film DARKEST MIRIAM, who exists in a vividly realized world of books and library patrons that any librarian will recognize as authentic. Surely, part of the credit for the authentic rendering goes to Martha Baillie, an author and librarian, who wrote the source material, THE INCIDENT REPORT. This epistolary-adjacent novel consists of 144 incident reports filled out by the narrator. Brief yet filled with lyrical and descriptive language, these briefs take on the feel of poems that describe the days of Miriam.

A woman looks out of a glass door
Naomi Jaye lovingly adapts this novel of reports into an engrossing dark fairy tale about Miriam, who finds love at the same time that she starts receiving threatening notes from a mystery stalker within the library stacks. Miriam lives vicariously through the goings-on of the public library. She assists patrons with their needs but also observes the scenarios that take place in the reports she uses to document their interactions, referring to them with monikers like "unusually pale female patron" and "suitcase man." She exists in the library space but somehow apart from it. Her greatest joy seems to be eating lunch on a bench in the community gardens, where she can read, enjoy the sunshine, and people watch some more. Here she meets Janko (Tom Mercier), a man from Slovenia who reads stories about Kekec, a children's book character who overcomes his fears.

At the same time, Miriam begins to find notes about the library that indicate she's being watched. The notes reference plot points and characters from the opera Rigoletto, the Italian opera about a hunchbacked court jester who serves his King while trying to protect his daughter. As the story progresses, we learn about Miriam's connection to the opera and a tragic past still lingering over her heart. Credit goes to Jaye for the unhurried way she reveals truths about Miriam, giving viewers a mystery to solve. Miriam and Janko both do intriguing things during the film that elude easy explanation.

A man and woman walk together
Tom Mercier as JANKO, Britt Lower as MIRIAM in DARKEST MIRIAM
These library shenanigans exist in spaces brought to life by production designer Brendan Callaghan and illuminated and captured by cinematographer Michael LeBlanc. Their combined efforts offer traces of Wes Anderson's work, where the sets become characters in their own right. Everything feels lived in and purposefully set in just the right way, placing Miriam in a world that feels like a storybook rendering. This reflects how Miriam protects herself through the medium of stories. The more she can enter into the stories of those around her, the safer life feels. When she meets Janko, the protection guarding her world begins to crack.

Naomi Jaye's adaptation of this film beautifully captures the psychology of why one might be drawn to the job of librarian, acknowledging both the risks and the benefits. Librarians exist in a world of stories that offer both protection and places of escape. But these jobs also mean subjecting yourself to the whims and demands of the public. Our close interactions with the people we serve put us at risk of being objects of obsession, derision, or even wrath. While anyone who enjoys literary tales about people living in the margins will enjoy DARKEST MIRIAM, librarians will feel a special love for a story that feels true to their profession.

Screening in its World Premiere during Tribeca Film Festival 2024 in the Viewpoints section. See film detail page for screening options. 

Release info: Will soon be screening at Fantasia Film Festival in July 2024.

Final score: 4 out of 5

Please enjoy this interview I recorded with the director, Naomi Jaye, and the actor that played Janko, Tom Mercier.