There’s a sub-genre of thriller which we might call the ‘blind woman in peril’ movie which generally revolves around the witnessing of a murder. Jennifer 8 and Blink are good examples, though the daddy of them all is late 60’s melodrama Wait Until Dark, which featured Audrey Hepburn as a sight impaired woman, trapped at home, desperately defending herself against Alan Arkin’s criminal trio. In Darkness, written by actress Natalie Dormer and her director partner Anthony Byrne, is a worthy addition to the genre, a tense, well-acted affair which manages to hold the attention for 100 minutes, in spite of some highly implausible third act contrivances. It’s possibly the most ridiculously entertaining film of the year.
Brian De Palma’s Blow Out is clearly another influence: in that film, John Travolta played a sound engineer for horror films, who accidentally records a gun shot whilst out on location. Dormer plays Sofia, a pianist who provides music for slasher films. One night, she overhears a struggle in the flat above; this, it later transpires, is her glamorous neighbour Veronique being pushed from a window. Veronique’s death is the start of a journey that brings Sofia into contact with Milos Radic (Jan Bijvoet), a Serbian businessman accused of war crimes: The sight-impaired pianist is drawn into a dangerous world of corruption, hit-men and the Russian mafia. There’s also a MacGuffin in the shape of a mysterious USB stick. What’s on there? I have no idea, and neither does anyone else.
Having only seen the first series of Game of Thrones, I was unfamiliar with the work of Dormer (she plays Margaery Tyrell from series 2 onwards.) She’s in virtually every scene of In Darkness, and gives a strong, committed performance, totally convincing as a sight impaired woman haunted by her past, and driven to increasingly darker behaviour to break free of its grip.
Dormer has recruited several GOT alumni to help with this pet project, and the readymade chemistry helps divert attention from some of the awkward plot devices (one of these being a poison, laughably called ‘Liquid Gold’ – possibly in tribute to the hitmakers behind ‘Dance Yourself Dizzy.’) Ed Skrein was in series 3 of GOT, and was genuinely great as sinister scientist/torturer Ajax in the first Deadpool movie. As Marc, he walks a fine line between friend and foe, often rescuing Sofia from danger at exactly the right moment. One of these sequences is strikingly good. When a gang of hoodlums attempts to mug Sofia in the subway, Skrein beats them up; ingeniously, Byrne shows only their flailing shadows.
James Cosmo, also from GOT, plays Sofia’s slowly dying mentor Niall, and there’s a touching paternal tenderness between him and Dormer. When she tells Cosmo ‘you mean the world to me’, it’s with the heartbreaking knowledge that she will soon be alone.
The cast is filled out with Joely Richardson – having fun as Marc’s scheming sister, Alex – and Instragram ‘star’ Emily Ratajkowski. Yes, the girl from that ghastly Robin Thicke video. Ratajkowski seems to fit in a film every few years, and was effective in David Fincher’s Gone Girl. Here she’s saddled with the thankless part of Veronique – the war lord’s troubled daughter – and doesn’t get to do much except pout, wear a big hat, and lie down on a mortuary slab, though her Eastern European accent is solid enough. Maybe one day she’ll get a role which seriously tests her acting abilities but until then, the jury’s out.
As a big fan of the sadly cancelled Utopia series, I’ll happily watch Neil Maskell do anything. As a rumpled, good hearted copper with a bad diet, he’s fabulous, but skirts the edges of In Darkness like a football substitute, eager to get stuck into the action and frustratingly kept behind the goal line.
Some stuffy old farts – all men of course – have criticised In Darkness for ‘gratuitous’ nudity, which is laughable, given these scenes barely cover two minutes of screen time. Possibly the critical old guard feel threatened by the idea that a sight impaired woman might have sexual desires; even more shocking, she might even take the initiative. I hope some of the film’s mixed reviews don’t put Dormer and Byrne off a future collaboration, because I would love to see what they come up with next; just as long as it doesn’t involve liquid gold.
Review by Steve Timms