Synopsis – A blind musician hears a murder committed in the apartment upstairs from hers that sends her down a dark path into London’s gritty criminal underworld.
My Take – At first glance, this film directed by Anthony Byrne and co-written by ‘Game of Thrones‘ actress Natalie Dormer seemed like a usual murder mystery, with its blind protagonist finding herself stuck between a predictable cat and mouse game with the killer, and considering the way it builds up its slow-paced world, you’d think the story would predictably go one way. However, midway, the film shifts gears and goes totally in another unexpected direction. As it turns out the real-life couple, who could have filmed this in a totally B-action film fashion, instead elect to inject some art house visual and auditory sensibilities into their vision, and shift the whole tone of the story into a spy film for the second half.
And while the slow pace at the beginning may be off-putting for some, the unexpected twists midway in the story make for an interesting innovation from the usual. Personally I felt this Anthony Byrne directed film, was surprisingly often good, even though it falls short of being great by choosing to bite off more than it can chew.
The story follows Sofia (Natalie Dormer), a skilled but blind pianist who lost her sight as a child. Working for a studio orchestra that records themes for films, Sofia routinely takes the tube and walks back to her apartment where she lives alone. And it is in the hallway, where she often bumps into her neighbor, Veronique (Emily Ratajkowski), who has a unique perfume and lives in the apartment above her. While their conversations are usually distant, Sofia likes to believe they have friendly relationship. However, one night, after running into Veronique in the elevator, Sofia overhears loud voices and arguing through the paper-thin walls, which is soon followed by a laughter and drunken footsteps, all before she hears a body falls out of the window above.
The death of Veronique puts Sofia in touch with inspector Mills (Neil Maskell), who believes there is more to Veronique’s alleged suicide, which may or may not be related to her Milos Radic (Jan Bijvoet), a Serbian businessman and a controversial war criminal. While Sofia initially believes she is in the clear, but unknown to her Veronique’s boyfriend Marc (Ed Skrein), and his dangerous sister, Alex (Joely Richardson) have begun digging into her hidden past, whose exposure may reveal a side which will be more complex than everyone thinks.
The film begins as a tidy little B-film in the vein of classic thrillers, though more slickly stylized and self-aware, gleefully wringing tension from the audience’s ability to see things that Sofia cannot, such as Marc sneaking around her apartment with a gun aimed at her head, and during a tight first act that’s where the film seems to be headed. But director Anthony Byrne clearly has something else on its mind. The first third of the story then presents like a typical Hitchcock inspired film before branching out into a promisingly ambitious mystery. In the film’s bravura opening sequence, a woman is violently strangled to death before the film literally rewinds the footage and pulls back the camera to reveal a film being played on a screen. A long tracking shot moves over the orchestra scoring the scene before landing on Dormer’s pianist.
Director Byrne in these early scenes doubles down on the unnerving tension with a series of Dutch angles, overhead shots and prolonged holds on drains, textbook visual storytelling without the help of dialogue — done before but still majorly effective. So it’s a bit disappointing when Byrne departs Sofia’s POV to catch up with Radic and his cohorts, who ordered Veronique’s murder. Suddenly, all that style and camera work fade to make way for too many other people’s voices and motives. During one of the most intense scenes in the film. As Sofia shares a glass of champagne with Veronique’s father, a Serbian war criminal, she drops a small vial of liquid and must locate it before he finishes a conversation with his security associate Alex. We have no idea what’s in the vial, what Sofia intends to do with it, what connection she has to the war criminal, and who Alex is, though we know she had something to do with Veronique’s murder. But despite his audience lacking almost all details about what’s going on here, director Byrne masterfully mines the scenario to nail-biting effect.
Too bad that story ultimately loses focus and its protagonist’s point of view. Like in case of many thrillers, that the film overreaches and ends up bumping its head. About halfway through the film, all the additional story threads slowly bring the film into haughty – and silly – spy film territory, and drain away most of the fun while we learn exactly what’s going on.
The film clearly wants to be more than a blind damsel-in-distress thriller, but it ultimately loses us by taking itself much too seriously. While that knowledge puts a nifty twist on the proceedings, the film has played all its cards with half the running time to go. Sofia, it turns out, isn’t some hapless victim of circumstances, but a war refugee with a vendetta against Radic. Much of the final act is spent watching the story threads tie themselves up in predictable manner, and witnessing a series of flashbacks that had already revealed their point halfway through the film. As it tumbles into a blood-splashed finale, director Byrne and Dormer make script choices that rob its tale of moral complexity. So, the answer to who killed Veronique proves disappointing, and a climactic kill feels like a strangely safe call.
It’s a disappointing resolution, to say the least – all but totally devoid of the kind of suspense the director had crafted earlier in the film, and even borderline tedious. But it doesn’t entirely sink the film, which I think has built up enough tension early on to keep us at least somewhat interested during the long-winded resolution. If this had stayed the central dramatic question of the film, it would have been a better film, if a notably less ambitious one. Yet, director Byrne sustains his high-flown visual style even after the film abruptly becomes an action-heavy revenge thriller, but he’s still far less adept at handling zippy fight sequences than winking suspense, as demonstrated by a clunky CGI-assisted single-shot action sequence that offers a poor imitation of similar effects in genre films such as The Raid: Redemption. He also smartly makes the audience experience the film as the main character Sofia would. The colors used are cold and dark, the sounds are extremely sharp, and the timings of edits are precise; this is the world of someone who cannot rely on sight. As the production designer, Sonja Klaus creates the perfect setup for Si Bell to shoot this thriller in a beautifully picturesque manner. Together with the editing, color, and music all the elements add to the stylistic suspense that hint at influences from Hitchcock.
As far as performances go, it cannot go without saying that Natalie Dormer’s powerful female role is acted very artfully. As she keeps her poise and makes the character more electric and empowered than pitiful. As Sofia, she had an acting challenge to be blind, play professional piano, and still be capable of handling herself during action scenes. It’s always difficult to judge the accuracy of an actor playing a character with this kind of disability – but generally makes for a strong presence in the lead, especially in early scenes. Ed Skrein has the dark look and the action skills needed for the part of Marc, but was lacking in screen presence. On the other hand, Joely Richardson played Marc’s sister Alex with a sense of over-the-top hysterics that sort of clashed with this film’s mood. Emily Ratajkowski‘s exotic looks served her good stead in the mysterious femme fatale role of Veronique, that did not really demand anything much more than her beauty. Belgian actor Jan Bijvoet projected effectively the sinister and perverted vibe of his character. Neil Maskell also seemed comfortable in his small role. On the whole, ‘In Darkness‘ is an ordinary thriller which despite some promising elements is undone by its expansive ambitions.
Directed – Anthony Byrne
Rated – R
Run Time – 110 minutes