Review by Rich Cline | 3/5

dir-scr Romola Garai
prd Maggie Monteith, Matthew James Wilkinson
with Carla Juri, Alec Secareanu, Imelda Staunton, Angeliki Papoulia, Anah Ruddin, Elowen Harris, Joseph Akubeze, Jacqueline Roberts, Yonah Odoom, Perry Jaques, Charlotte Chiew, William Lester
release US 24.Jul.20,
UK 28.Jan.22
20/UK 1h39

secareanu staunton garai

Is it streaming?

juri and secareanu
With her feature writing-directing debut, Romola Garai creates an oppressively creepy atmosphere in which a nasty horror mystery plays out. The film has a remarkably queasy visual sensibility, skilfully mixing light, shadow, colour and lots of yuckiness. And it's edited to maintain an enigmatic sense of fear that isn't always grounded in the story or characters. But there are details peppered everywhere that help build some scary suspense.
Living rough in London, ex-soldier Tomas (Secareanu) does odd jobs to survive. Then when he's attacked in the street, he's taken in by Sister Claire (Staunton) and offered a room in a crumbling house with fellow refugee Magda (Juri), whose demanding invalid mother (Ruddin) lives in the attic. While trying to clean and repair the house, Tomas makes some freaky discoveries. He also begins to fall for Magda, and they get some respite by heading out into town for a night out. But Tomas is gripped by a sense that something evil is going on.
Indeed, Tomas is haunted by memories of his solitary life as a sentry in a forest and an encounter he once had with a young woman (Papoulia). This worries him so much that he tapes his hands together when he sleeps. Meanwhile, his waking hours are a nightmare of bigotry from the generally spiteful British public. And this creaky house, with its lack of electricity, sludgy tap water and gloomy residents, isn't any better. Not to mention the hairless toilet bats. Yes, the film's most unsettling moments come thanks to a stream of nutty surprises.

Secareanu has a superbly open face that helps the audience identify with him, trying to make sense of the craziness as seen through his perceptive, compassionate eyes. Tomas knows he shouldn't stay in this house of horrors, but he has begun to care for Magda. Juri's performance is much more arch, maintaining a sense of foreboding nastiness even in her quietly tender moments. While in extended flashbacks, Papoulia layers steely resilience under her vulnerabilities. And Staunton has a great time with her heightened role.

Setting this around refugees in multi-cultural London allows Garai to work in a range of intriguing elements, such as hints of companionship and romance, and of course the amulet Tomas finds in the forest. But details splinter rather than coming together as events get increasingly violent and grotesque in the final act, while the parallel narratives don't add much meaning under the surface. So even as the ending gets very chilling, everything becomes frustratingly murky.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 20.Dec.21

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© 2022 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall