Blakeson tries to set the tone for his film in the first few minutes. He does arguably just that, showing two men going through the quick, deliberate process of buying supplies, stealing a van and preparing a sound-proof room for their victim.
But it’s very hard to take this opening at face value. The sheer simplicity of the stark images, absence of dialogue, and lack of any hint of commentary make it feel more like a set-up for a surprise than an honest look at what’s to come.
The entire first half of the film suffers from this problem. Buried in even the most tense moments is a strange hint that this story, about a standard abduction and ransom deal, could erupt into dark comedy or shocking violence. It never does, but the feeling refuses to go away.
Blakeson follows the expected course of events with an unblinking camera eye and a narrative rhythm that’s all his own. The kidnappers (still unnamed) perform the deed and snap a few quick photos of Alice before dressing her in new, comfortable clothes and promptly leave her alone in her dungeon. They methodically change their own clothes and settle down to the task of making phone calls and arranging an exchange.
Initially, we learn only the barest facts about the kidnappers. The young Danny and the seasoned Vic, criminal buddies from a recent prison encounter, have been hard at work on this scheme for some time. Alice represents not only their ticket to a better life, but also a chance to put a master plan into action just to give them the satisfaction of a job well done.
Around the mid-point, the twists kick in. Neither the kidnappers, nor their victim, are as simple as they seem. Danny and Vic may have the best-laid plan, but lack the mutual trust and focus needed to pull it off without a hitch, and Alice has her own bag of tricks.
As the kidnapping plan unfurls, it gets harder and harder to follow new developments in the plot. This isn’t to say that the story isn’t well-crafted; on the contrary, Blakeson is every bit as methodical as the villainous team on-screen. Instead it’s because the characters swell up to dominate, with a trio of excellent performances led by Gemma Arterton’s Alice.
Arterton, best known in the U.S. for her role as Strawberry Fields in the most recent James Bond installment, starts out by begging for her life and alternating between moments of quiet desperation and outright panic. Once we learn more about her past, she becomes a more dynamic character with subjective motives and schemes. Arterton gives Alice subtle mannerisms and expressions that speak to those newly-uncovered layers.
As Vic, Eddie Marsan is a powerful yet disturbed portrait of masculine anger. His devotion to the plan is clearly the obsession of a psychopath, but the heartbreak he emotes when things begin to go wrong is a shocking surprise, especially to see it coming from the same actor. Martin Compston’s Danny is equal parts naïve sidekick and shrewd underling. Like Arterton and Marsan, Compston shows remarkable range.
Like so many first-time directors, Blakeson is caught between the aesthetics he’s trying to blend. Many films come to mind that share some elements with “Alice Creed.” There’s a somewhat deeper connection with the films of Quentin Tarantino and Austrian master Michael Haneke. Blakeson’s narrow scope, populating “Alice Creed” with just three characters and setting most of the film in a single room is much more minimalist than “Reservoir Dogs” while the naturalistic performances and everyday manner of human monsters suggests Haneke’s hands-off moralizing in “Benny’s Video” or “Funny Games.”
“Alice Creed” features very little of the violence that characterized Tarantino and Haneke. It’s as if Blakeson is walking a thin line between the two styles, changing course slightly whenever one or the other threatens to consume his story. Working on the fringes of violent storytelling is a good choice for a film that’s as much about trust and fear as it is about the compulsion to hurt other people. But it also makes “Alice Creed” lacking conviction.
Strangely, Blakeson has cited the trite thriller “Ransom,” starring Mel Gibson, as among his primary influences. If this sets the bar a bit lower, then “Alice Creed” is a film with mature sensibility. But with this cast and the freedom of an independent production, it’s too bad that the film is not more original or insightful.
Alice Creed – Gemma Arterton
Danny – Martin Compston
Vic – Eddie Marsan
CinemaNX and Isle of Man Films
Distributed by A Bigger Boat and Anchor Bay Entertainment
Written and directed by J Blakeson
Producers, Steve Christian, Andrew Fingret, Marc Samuelson, Adrian Sturges
Original Music, Marc Canham
Cinematographer, Philipp Blaubach
Editor, Mark Eckersley
Casting, Lucy Bevan
Art Director, Sally Black