Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Disappearance of Alice Creed

My two least favourite genres are the kidnap movie and the courtroom drama. The same reason applies: by their own definition, they’re inherently uncinematic. There are only so many angles from which you can film the interior of a courtroom, or the enclosed space in which a kidnap victim is held. A static milieu; narratives that unfold via dialogue rather than by visual pacing or rhythm.

So I approached ‘The Disappearance of Alice Creed’ without much enthusiasm. And it took me by surprise.

The wordless five-minute opening sequence was the hook. Shot with a documentary-style attention to detail and edited with a slowly building sense of urgency, it depicts the preparations made by Vic (Eddie Marsen) and Danny (Martin Compston) prior to their abduction of the eponymous Alice (Gemma Arterton). That’s yer entire cast, right there, by the way.

Essentially, this sequence gives us the Vic and Danny Guide to Soundproofing and Securing a Bedroom. Our boys break out staple-guns, cordless drills, hammers and rolls of duct tape and work with a studious intensity that would be a little bit frightening even if they weren’t essentially turning a bland back room into a prison right before our eyes.

Then they pile into an equally bland Transit van and peel out of a car park. Locations are kept purposefully vague. Next thing they’re yanking the back doors open and bundling in the unfortunate Alice, her hands tied and a bag over her head. No build-up to the snatch, no laborious stalking scene, no hint of Alice’s everyday life or who she is, just wham-bam, back of the van, cut to the bedroom, tied to the bed and hey-ho, Miss Creed, best hope your rich daddy pays up. Then writer/director J Blakeson follows Vic and Danny out, leaves Alice in the dark, and proceeds to spend more time with his monosyllabic villains than he does with his photogenic protagonist.

‘The Disappearance of Alice Creed’ basically fucked with my expectations from the word go, the title being both the first and last of the ways it did so. Putting Alice’s name right there in the title – and giving Arterton lead billing – suggests she’s our primary focus. She’s not; it’s the relationship between Vic and Danny that Blakeson is most interested in. Also, withholding the title until the end of the movie – not a new thing, but done here for a reason – puts a very different spin in what it means.

Talking of spin, kudos to Blakeson for having the cojones to go with a couple of narrative curveballs that could deep-sixed the movie if he’d made the slightest mis-timing. I probably should have seen both of them coming (or least had an inkling that they were on the way), but I honestly didn’t. Maybe it was because I’d come to the film with so much indifference and was prepared to just let it wash over me. Either way, they completely blindsided me and that’s exactly what a twist is supposed to do.

So: visually interesting when the mise en scene ought to be uncinematic; effective twists when the three-hander set-up should only allow for so much leeway; and a sparky, enervated performance from Arterton, who I’d never really rated in any of her other roles. Seriously, Hollywood, quit treating the girl as set-dressing and let her cut loose. Also, the violence is handled in a manner than made me think of early Scorsese, erupting out of the fabric of the film and the infrastructure of character relations, only for things to settle back to some ostensible form of normality just seconds later, rather than being lovingly and wincingly obsessed over as is the standard post-Tarantino operating procedure. Some indication of Blakeson’s interest in character over hardware is in any of the numerous scenes where a character is framed pointing a gun at the camera. Almost invariably, the weapon is blurred and the actor – and therefore the performance – kept in focus.

This says a lot, and it’ll be interesting to see how Blakeson’s career develops. ‘The Disappearance of Alice Creed’ is certainly an accomplished debut: cleverly put together, confidently directed, tense and engrossing.


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