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A Ghost Story: A movie that will haunt you

A Ghost Story is screening as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival.

A Ghost Story (M, 87 mins) Directed by David Lowery ★★★★½

A young couple are living together in a rental house somewhere on the outskirts of a unnamed North American city. He is a composer and songwriter. She works in town.

Tragedy strikes and he (Casey Affleck) is killed. And there, as you might have guessed from the title, A Ghost Story really begins.

As the deceased, but very present Affleck keeps vigil, his partner – played with a disarming toughness and reserve by Rooney Mara – tries to move on with her life. But the place, the house she shared with Affleck, prevents it. Soon enough, she exits, leaving the ghost to watch and wonder as the decades pass, forward and back, while he ponders when, and how, he might leave too and make his way to some new home.

Rooney Mara, and yes, that is Casey Affleck under the sheet, star in A Ghost Story.

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Writer/director David Lowery (Pete's DragonAin't Them Bodies Saints) has crafted his film along the familiar beats of a ghostly romance – the moments of comparison to Truly, Madly, Deeply are there if you really want to see them – but also takes his tale into territory that allows for a gentle, warm, proudly philosophical and gently ambitious film to unfurl.

I first saw A Ghost Story a couple of months back. Watching it again this morning, I was re-struck by the intricacy of the storytelling and the structure Lowery has constructed. There is real poignancy, sadness, grief and loss written within A Ghost Story, but what is onscreen never becomes mawkish or in the slightest bit depressing. Lowery's thesis – slightly over-explained during a kitchen-table soliloquy from musician Will Oldham – is that a life is no less eternal than a piece of music. And like music, a human life might echo long after the composer is gone.

Helping Lowery and his actors immeasurably are the wonderful cinematography of Andrew Droz Palermo and the score from Daniel Hart. There is nothing intrusive or flashy about their work here, but the inventiveness and intelligence are key to A Ghost Story's success. Palermo achieves magic with an old sheet and a perfect lighting plan that no amount of CGI or animation could ever get close to, while Hart underscores the long wordless passages by gently hinting at everything that does not need to be said.

A Ghost Story is a cheerful, funny, affectionate and endlessly loveable film about what it means to live a life. The fact that it takes a death to explain it is central to all the delicious ironies A Ghost Story explores. 

I adored this film. If you're in the mood for something original, entertaining and imbued with a daft wit that never strays into comedy for its own sake, then I can't think of any other film playing in town this week that you might enjoy quite as much as this.

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