This essay is by our guest writer, Grace.
Natalie Dormer returns to the big screen as Sofia McKendrick, a blind pianist who overhears what the police dub to be a suicide in the apartment upstairs. The deceased is Veronique (Emily Ratajkowski), daughter of accused war criminal, Zoran Radic (Jan Bijovet). Set in London, the modern day thriller pulls from familiar tropes to create something new. The project was borne out of Dormer and director Anthony Byrne’s mutual frustration with the “landscape of female characters” in the genre and succeeds in producing an imperfect, complex, and three-dimensional female lead. This is a landscape that since evolved, but one that continues to be in need of growth. It also reveals itself to weave in the theme of violence against women, which is incredibly relevant in our society today with the rise of the #MeToo movement.
With an increase in popular psychological thrillers following the phenomena of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it’s a shame that this one should be swept under the rug. While the film would certainly have been improved with the aid of a larger budget (it was shot on-location in 25 days), it still prevails with the little that the overall project has been afforded. Nearly a decade in the making, Dormer (who co-wrote and produced) and Byrne have created an engaging and entertaining addition to the genre.
After a violently red-hued opening credits, the first shot is of a woman being strangled. Before we can edge closer to understanding, the tape pauses, softly screeching in rewind. The audience is no longer witnessing a murder–at least, not yet–but watching an orchestra record a score. Sofia is easily spotted at the piano, an elegant silhouette poised in instrumental motion. The session comes to an end, and the journey begins. From here on out the sense of sound is given meticulous attention. The camera points us where to look, but also points us to where we should listen.
“Is it true that the loss of one sense sharpens the others?” One might ask this themselves as we enter Sofia’s world before the question is posed by Detective Mills (Neil Maskell) following her neighbour’s death. Director Byrne takes us through her routine and I found I was forced to close in on the sounds that make up Sofia’s life: the scrape of her cane against London’s pavement, the clicks of her shoes, the stirring of a coffee machine, a key turning, the shuts and slams of doors. The distinct ticks of a metronome later highlight a supercut of her daily routine and commute. Even the sound of her bare feet padding across the wooden apartment floor is detectable, and the smallest clinks and sharpest booms in moments of violence are heard.
Not only does the production of sound in the film enhance the viewer’s experience, creating a more immersive film, but it also points to what it must be like for a blind person to rely on sound alone. The attention to sound creates a particularly tense atmosphere, most notably when a character is almost poisoned and when another is followed and nearly killed. The film’s score by Niall Byrne is another audio element that wonderfully aids the plot and helps shift between tones.
Clearly, something is simmering beneath the surface as Sofia encounters Veronique in their building, and overhears an argument that suggests foul play. Flashes of a nightmare, but also a past that permeates Sofia’s thoughts, are adjunct to the unraveling of the tale. Before Veronique’s death, Sofia had promised her neighbour that she’d perform at a function for Veronique’s father, Radic, which only further entrenches her in a world more sinister than previously imagined.
Dormer gives a riveting performance as Sofia, which is arguably her best performance in a lead role so far, and an incredibly demanding role at that. The piercing fluidity and fierceness that she brings only heightens the character and better immerses the audience in the story she has to tell. I found myself not only locked into the film as a result, on the edge of my seat, but also rooting for her character.
The rest of the cast creates a sturdy ensemble. Ed Skrein is Marc, rebelling against his boss and sister, Joely Richardson is Alex who works for Radic, and Jan Bijovet gives a chilling performance as the war criminal, inciting a terror in the final act that should be enough to make your skin crawl.
The film’s grasp of varied angles and perspectives and overall cinematography comes together nicely with the other audio and visual elements. One beautifully shot scene, without giving anything away, relied on shadows against a lit and graffitied wall to reveal the action. Any complaints of an unstructured plot, complicated storyline, or any “holes” in storytelling point to a lack of attention or inability to not be spoon-fed the answers right away. The film ties up nicely, even with the late addition of a twist that will raise eyebrows if you didn’t see it coming. If you’re interested, follow any of the cast, or simply are a fan of the genre, this one is worth your time.
In Darkness is now in theaters in select cities, as well as on demand.