“Unsane” Review

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Steven Soderbergh has always come across as a director who needs a reason not to do something more than he needs a reason to do it, playing with forms and new technologies to always stay on the cutting edge of filmmaking. He continues this trend with Unsane, a psychological thriller filmed entirely on an iPhone that uses its technological limitations to its advantage.

The smaller size of the iPhone camera leads to a restrictive aspect ratio that boxes in its main characters while lending each shot an almost invasive feel, as if the audience is spying on the characters. This is an appropriate way to view Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) – a woman suffering from severe anxiety as a result of continuous stalking from a prior acquaintance. When Sawyer goes to a mental health clinic to talk to a psychiatrist about her experiences she finds her attempts to leave blocked by staff informing her that she’s inadvertently signed herself in to voluntary confinement – and she’ll need to stay at least a week before they’re willing to let her go. Her attempts to prove her own sanity are further hindered by her insistence that her stalker, David Strine (Joshua Leonard) has gotten a job as one of the orderlies…a claim that none of the staff take very seriously considering the circumstances. While the aspect ratio lends a claustrophobic element to the already uncomfortable setting the iPhone camera’s large depth of field ensures that the audience always sees everything in the background of each room Sawyer is in, making her feel both trapped and swallowed by her environment. When combined with a frantic performance from Foy Unsane promises a tense and unpredictable psychological thriller – but the script by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer never really manages to deliver.

Unsane starts out strong, with genuine questions about whether or not Sawyer is in need of confinement. While she claims to not need additional mental treatment beyond the counselling she initially requested, Sawyer displays examples of paranoia, anxiety, hallucinations, and violence within her first twenty-four hours of being hospitalised. The hospital hardly seems comfortable but the staff we see appear to be following all necessary protocols – cheerfully making conversation with the police officers that investigate Sawyer’s claim that she’s being held against her will as they hand over the forms she signed. Is Soderbergh making a savage attack on the state of mental health facilities in America, or is everything we’re seeing distorted through the perspective of a mentally unwell woman? I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for some twist or reveal that would demonstrate the point Unsane was trying to make, but instead it just relies on out-dated stigmas towards mental facilities and the usual game of cat-and-mouse between Sawyer and David that appears in most psychological thrillers. As the story loses its ambiguity it relies increasingly on Foy to keep it together, who imbues Sawyer with enough strength and resilience to make her both captivating to watch and surprisingly dangerous.

It’s almost more fun to appreciate how Unsane was made than to actually focus on the story, as the clever directorial tricks Soderbergh uses are more surprising than the relatively standard plot. Exterior night scenes appear to be day scenes under a blue filter, and the most complicated visual effect is a simple but effective overlapping of two shots of Foy. It demonstrates how accessible filmmaking has become, and how a little ingenuity can get around the confines of lower quality cameras, but doesn’t raise the quality of Unsane itself beyond ‘pretty good’.

3 and a half stars.

“Breathe” Review

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It’s always a gamble when famous actors try their hands at directing. For every Clint Eastwood and Ron Howard who are able to form respected careers off-screen there are countless others who fail with self-indulgent cinematic messes. With Breathe marking his directorial debut, Andy Serkis hasn’t quite joined the ranks of the greats but demonstrates genuine potential and a keen eye for sweeping spectacle.

Helping matters is that Serkis stays solely behind the camera, letting the magnificent performances of Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy form the foundations upon which the rest of the film is built. Based on real events, Garfield plays Robin Cavendish – a man who has his life taken away from him when he is paralysed by polio at the age of 28. Refusing to leave her husband to die, Diana (Foy) pushes and encourages him to leave the confines of the hospital as the two revolutionise public perception on what the disabled can do. Garfield has never been an actor to shy away from challenging performances and he does some of his finest work yet here, expressing Cavendish’s pain, joy, frustration, and loss with his facial tics while keeping his body still from the neck down. As Diana, Foy has to sell the idea of a woman who loves a man so completely that she’s willing to put her own life on hold to look after him, and thanks to the wonderful chemistry between her and Garfield as well as the actress’ innate strength she’s able to pull it off.

Breathe is a film centred around romance, and from the opening title cards seems to be paying homage to the 1950s melodramas of a director like Douglas Sirk. Robert Richardson’s cinematography alternates between the rich, vibrant landscape settings of Spain, Kenya, and Germany with plenty of soaring aerial shots complete with golden sunlight streaming through, and the confining interiors of the hospital or Robin’s bedroom. Serkis is clearly trying to get as much emotion out of his story as possible, but while certain individual scenes carry definite emotional weight they never really connect to one another as a film. The opening in particular rockets along in pace, and by trying to fit almost thirty years of one man’s life into two hours the film ends up feeling more like a highlight’s reel than a lifetime. These highlights were fine as I watched each one, but as Serkis moved onto the next I found myself quickly forgetting what came before so left Breathe with little of the film still on my mind.

While sitting in the cinema for Breathe I found myself wondering why exactly the film was made. Serkis’s direction is much more assured than one would expect from a first-time director, the performances were genuine and generous, and the story is one worth telling – but why now of all times? Cavendish died in the early 90s, polio rates have dropped drastically due to vaccinations, and there doesn’t seem to be any recent events to provoke a renewed interest in Cavendish’s impact on disabled rights. It wasn’t until a title card appeared at the end of the film revealing that Cavendish’s son, Jonathan, grew up to become a film producer that I had my answer. Breathe was made as a son’s tribute to his parents, which is heart-warming in its own right, but ultimately the average viewer is never going to have the same connection to the story as one directly impacted by it.

3 stars.