REVIEW: CONTAINMENT

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First up in our series of East End Film Festival reviews is director Neil McEnery-West’s atmospheric debut feature Containment.

Set in a scuzzy housing estate, the story follows a group of residents who band together against forced quarantine following a mysterious contagious outbreak. Comprised of frustrated middle-aged artist Mark (Lee Ross), immigrant Sergie (Andrew Leung), mute youngster Nicu (the impressively effecting Gabriel Senior), nurse Sally (Sherlock’s Louise Brealey), her brainy boyfriend Aiden (William Postlethwaite), and geriatric UKIPer Enid (Sheila Reid), the film wastes no time getting to the meat of the story.

Mark has a child custody meeting scheduled this morning but awakens to find his flat is without electricity and running water. Worse, someone has glued his door shut, his mobile no longer works, and neighbours are being attacked by soldiers in HAZMAT suits. So those are the first hints that today is going to be complete shit, but it doesn’t take long for things to go downhill as Mark’s angry, angsty, and aggressive neighbour Sergei hammers a hole in the wall between their flats. With younger brother Nicu in tow, they’re seeking a way out before they’re rounded up by the as-yet-unidentified authorities. Busy setting up a protective perimeter and blocking the phone signal, those authorities don’t seem bothered enough to formally introduced themselves.

The group quickly grows to include a few others, each an easily identifiable stock character – we have the Healer, the Racist, the Brainiac. There is no time to develop original identities so everyone feels immediately familiar. The chain smoking old woman reminisces about how things were before the war. The young thug doesn’t trust authority. The Brainiac thinks his woman might be falling for the Artist when she’s patching up his wound hand. Mistrust and paranoia is rampant already, but that is cranked to 11 when they witness an attempted escapee gunned down by an unseen sniper on the rooftop. Now armed now with the knowledge that this situation is no joke, the group hatches an escape plan while the HAZMATers move meticulously from one flat to another, marching the residents to destinations unknown.

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From there everything is fairly straight-forward albeit with a few exciting sequences along the way. No time is spared for character development or deviation from the principle story. Like the characters, the plot feels familiar but doesn’t deliberately ape the more well known films of similar set up. There are a couple of nice turns, such as when the group takes one of the soldiers hostage, or when they’re forced to barricade themselves in from an onslaught of bloodthirsty, revenge-seeking zombie-like residents from the neighbouring tower.

The pace at which events unfold is refreshing as McEnery-West doesn’t force the action, instead allowing room for the story to breath, with long stretches of silence and an array of beautiful b-roll shots. Unfortunately at only 76 minutes more could have been done to ramp up the tension, such as seeing the effect of the mysterious illness or divulging information about the characters we are stuck with and meant to worry about. Had the filmmakers decided to go with a full 90 minutes, they wouldn’t have had to rely so much on tropes.

That said, much credit needs to be given to the Casting department as the actors are the stars of the show here (as they should be, obviously). They weren’t given much opportunity to explore, but in limited screen time they breathed life and nuance into what easily could have been very one-dimensional characters.

Outside of the HAZMAT suits (which didn’t look very protective) and the triage tent (which didn’t look large enough to house the presumed number of victims), the production design was simple but effective, much of the threat was left to the audience’s imagination and there wasn’t a reliance on visual effects. Similarly the cinematography didn’t push any boundaries but felt perfectly in sync with the mood and pace of the story. The music was well placed and struck the correct cords, the sound design had a few shining moments such as in the chaos following the surprise death of one of the group. So from a production standpoint, the movie is a winner.

Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I really did enjoy this film, much more than the next few paragraphs might indicate. But I will also say, in some regards it is probably a good thing it was short as that didn’t allow much time to pick apart the myriad issues, of which here are a few:

As mentioned above, the script could have used a bit more development so as to not rely on shortcuts as much. Our survivors just happened to include a couple of young foreigners and a feisty old racist, so there’s some easy immediate tension. The artist who was shown to be a bad parent at the beginning because he was late to yet another custody procedure just happened to become a father figure to the newly orphaned young boy by the end, that arc was spotted from a mile away. The Brainiac and the Thug were at each other’s throats. With the exception of one untimely demise, the characters’ arcs played out exactly as one might imagine, there weren’t many surprises to be had.

And there were plot holes, too – despite all the commotion this event must be making, never once do we catch a glimpse of curious onlookers or a news helicopter. The story takes place over a 24 hour period and involved several hundred residents, surely some alarms would have been raised? Or, why didn’t they just kick down the flimsy door instead of spending so much time creating a homemade chemical dissolvent?

In addition, there was a heavy reliance on coincidence – the timing of the HAZMAT team leaving the area and returning didn’t jibe. Nor did the snipers abandoning their post at the most opportune time. Also it was very lucky that Nick just happened to have an incredibly heavy piece of art in his living room that could be use to block the baddies out when nothing else would work.

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So not only do we have a script that was too on the nose, and filled with plot holes and coincidences, but cliches were also abundant: we had the stock characters as mentioned above, including the brooding Russian thug swigging his vodka, and we had dialogue which included lines such as “this is my first day on the job”, and “I have an idea! But no, it’s just too crazy to work…” But again, the cast came to the rescue and somehow made it all work.

We do eventually learn a little bit about the mysterious disease but we don’t really know who is responsible for cleaning things up. So when dying Mark gives his phone to Nicu with the instructions to phone up his ex-wife, we have a lovely scene of a man growing up and being a good father and the hope of an orphan finding a new, better home. It’s beautifully shot, the emotions are real, everything is wrapped up while also allowing for enough ambiguity to keep us wondering if the boy did manage to escape. Perfect.

But no. Nicu is captured, inoculated, and told by newly sympathetic – but still faceless – masked HAZMATers that everything will be alright, thoroughly undermining his struggle and removing the emotional impact of the previous scene. Simply put, had the group blindly followed instructions they would all still be alive. Their struggle meant nothing, they died because they were stubborn, and Nicu is never going to reach Mark’s ex-wife, he’s going to end up alive but in some shitty institution. Maybe this was the point, but I don’t believe the delivery of the final moment was intended to be a shocking twist a la Night of the Living Dead but instead can be chocked up to clumsy delivery by a first time filmmaker. That is a shame, but there were enough good things in this film to leave me excited for McEnery-West’s next project.

Containment is reminiscent of many movies, but reminds me the most of the wonderful Right At Your Door, which has stuck with me for a very long time. I suspect Containment could do the same for the next generation of low budget filmmakers. I don’t know what the budget was but I don’t suspect it was generous, and yet the producers, cast and crew, and a first time director put together an engaging, tense, and well-paced thriller which should hopefully open up a few doors for them.

Containment screens Tuesday July 7 at 18:30 at the Genesis Cinema.

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