The Disappearance of Alice Creed (J Blakeson, UK, 2010, 98mins)
Note: This review reveals key plot points.
Alice Creed is a taunt three hander with enough forethought to undercut audience expectations. The single location, abandoned as the plot demands in the final third, is a gamble for writer and debut director J Blakeson. Such a tight focus, on the characters in situ, washes out extraneous plot details or setpiece distractions; the film becomes a feature length close-up. We’re required to focus all of our precious attention on the performances and the pleat of character relationships. It’s a risky technique. With the audience at such close quarters, any emotional or psychological misstep is potentially that much more conspicuous.
Blakeson’s care mirrors that of his two kidnappers, Vic and Danny. Like them, he’s planned each detail of the enterprise down to the fineries. These are forensically aware criminals who are so jumpy they might be aware of us. In a dialogue free opening sequence they outfit an abandoned flat with soundproof sheeting, prepare the bedroom to imprison a single occupant and burn their old clothes, preparing for the snatch. It’s the dynamic between these two men – one old and fastidious, one young and green – that initially fascinates, but soon we’re immersed in a character study, and with that the film grips hard, not letting go for an hour and a half.
The first third contrasts the vulnerability of the beautiful and bound Creed with the determination and ruthlessness of the kidnappers, but the pleasure of Alice Creed is that the complications aren’t familiar for long. Blakeson lays down the tropes of the kidnap drama only to pull them away once the audience thinks it’s found its footing. Vic and Danny are revealed as lovers, simultaneously deepening and subverting the macho dynamic which characterises the archetypal British crime thriller. Creed’s selection turns out to be far from benign as she is also Danny’s girlfriend. The revelations shake the narrative kaleidoscope and complicate the setup. Crucially, however, each new twist, though eccentric, serves the story’s internal logic.
Employing sexuality to add complexity to a familiar scenario gives the movie edge. Such a complicated series of relationships, with each character knowing more of the other than they’re aware of at any one time, is bound to lead to accusations that the contrivances bleed plausibility but Blakeson’s technique is his screenplay’s salvation. By eliciting such strong performances from his three leads, and emotional if not psychological verisimilitude, he’s created a claustrophobic atmosphere that ratchets up tension, pushing any reservation about these relationships into the background. Dynamic camerawork and tight angles are used to good psychological effect, ensuring that the film avoids the trap of theatrical staging. The direction is an adept piece of focialisation. Audience attention is drawn toward small details – the spider moving across Arterton’s extraneous toe, a discharged shell chasing on the carpet. Our heightened senses are excellent bedfellows for this heightened reality.
It’s true that each revelation, each twist in the tale, makes demands on the audience, but at each juncture Blakeson does enough to keep disbelief suspended. Only occasionally does his grip falter. It’s curious that Arterton is so exposed whereas the men, in those scenes in which they’re required to strip down to the bare essentials, continue to receive the kind of modest protection that screams artifice and is at odds with the intimacy that punctuates the rest of the film. It smacks of a double standard.
Arterton’s flashes of fight or flight hit the right note, squeezing everything out of the role but she isn’t given as much to work with as her male co-stars. Perhaps it isn’t really her film – she’s little more than a nude maguffin. But with Martin Compston and Eddie Marsan’s relationship quite nicely defined, Creed is reduced to the poor little rich girl with a taste in bad boys and that’s a tax on our sympathies.
Crime thrillers in which betrayal is a determinant of the villain’s success are common enough, but using the sexuality of the characters as the one unpredictable variable is a fresh approach and it’s deployed here to great effect. In a film in which meticulous planning plays so large a part, it’s a pity that Blakeson couldn’t let go as the kidnapper’s plan unravels – the conclusion being a little too neat. Nevertheless, this is an unnerving thriller that’s driven by the threat of violence and the sexual proclivities of its protagonists.