Friday, April 30, 2010

Review - The Disappearance of Alice Creed

In the opening moments of his feature debut The Disappearance of Alice Creed, J Blakeson directs with a brutal efficiency. Two men (played by Eddie Marsan and Martin Compston) are hard at work in a sparsely decorated flat – soundproofing the walls, securing the doors, preparing the bed – and they wordlessly go about their business with a methodical and exacting sense of purpose. Their ultimate goal quickly becomes clear, when the pair sit patiently in a van and wait for a young woman (Gemma Arterton) to innocently walk into view. They grab her, tie her up, gag her and mask her. She is driven back to the flat where the two kidnappers coldly ignore her terrified screams as they tie her to the bed and leave the room, locking her inside. This is Alice Creed, and her ordeal has just begun.

Watching a young woman being stripped, bound and terrorised seems to set The Disappearance of Alice Creed up as a nasty exploitation film. This sequence is arresting and expertly assembled, but it's also troubling and horrible to watch, as the two men coldly ignore the terrified screams of their vulnerable prisoner, and bundle her about in such a rough fashion. Fortunately, Blakeson's film is better than that, and it quickly develops into a taut thriller, with the resourceful Alice proving to be far from a helpless victim. The daughter of a millionaire, she seems like the perfect prey for the ransom plot hatched by these ex-cons, but Blakeson loves to turn the tables and pull the rug out from under the viewer, and his clever screenplay continually manages to surprise. To say much more about the plot would be an error, as The Disappearance of Alice Creed is full of twists – including two that completely alter our perception of the characters and their relationship – and the less one knows about the film before viewing the better.

Instead, let's just admire the things that Blakeson does so well with his first film. The vast majority of The Disappearance of Alice Creed takes place within the cramped confines of the flat, and only three characters appear onscreen, but Blakeson uses these conditions to create a tense atmosphere. His direction is supremely confident, opting for carefully composed camerawork that brings a cinematic flair to his limited surroundings. The film is superbly cut together as well, with Blakeson and his editor Mark Eckersley developing a rapid, gripping pace and drawing maximum impact from the various set-pieces the director has built his screenplay around. It's a fine balancing act, to string a sequence out until the audience is on the edge of its seat, without pushing things too far, and this film manages to strike that difficult balance almost perfectly. The Disappearance of Alice Creed is a near-textbook example of how to construct a good thriller.

Blakeson also does fine work with his actors. With just three performers on show for the film's entire running time, the strength of the cast is naturally of paramount importance, and all three actors respond with exceptional displays. The relationship between kidnappers Vic and Danny is brilliantly portrayed by Eddie Marsan and Martin Compston, with cold hard man Vic domineering and bullying his young partner, until their characterisations and motives are upended by Blakeson halfway through. Marsan is an endlessly watchable actor and he is superb here once again, but the revelation of The Disappearance of Alice Creed is Alice herself, Gemma Arterton. A far cry from the world of James Bond or the Hollywood blockbusters she suddenly appears to be the go-to girl for, this role gives her the chance to really stretch her acting muscles, and she doesn't waste the opportunity. Playing Alice Creed allows her to be simultaneously vulnerable and a bold, courageous protagonist, and she brings a remarkable conviction and emotional weight to her acting.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed is not flawless, and Blakeson occasionally ties himself in knots with his complicated plotting, which often leads to Alice, Vic and especially Danny behaving in a manner that forwards the plot rather than one that naturally fits their characterisations. The film frequently stretches credulity as well, but Blakeson's fleet direction and lively pacing ensures such flaws don't really register. Even if we might be able to anticipate what lies in store for each of the characters in the end, it's still fascinating to see how many twists and turns the narrative manages to wind through before we get there. I can't recall the last time I was so gripped and thoroughly entertained by a British thriller, and it certainly marks its debutant writer/director as a talent to watch.

Read my interview with J Blakeson here