Nothing Personal (2010): Urszula Antoniak’s Feature Debut, Starring Stephen Rea Lotte Verbeek

Urszula Antoniak’s feature debut, “Nothing Personal,” is a quiet and stirring meditation on loneliness and tenuous connection. A lot is left to our imagination in this story of a heartbroken young woman (Lotte Verbeek) who finds a new start–when and where she least expects it.

After a traumatic breakup of some sort, the woman decides to spend some time backpacking alone through a remote area of Ireland called Connemara. She seems as withdrawn from the world of other people as Michelle Williams’s character did in Kelly Reichardt’s superb, Wendy and Lucy (2008).
In one harrowing early scene, a trucker who has picked her up while hitchhiking makes an unwanted pass. She literally jumps from the speeding truck and then, when he stops his vehicle and tries to approach her, frightens him away with bloodcurdling screams.
Verbeek’s performance achieves this balance between personal exile and fierceness. Her determination to stay fully in control of her life seems to come from past disappointments or mistakes but is also keeping her future at bay.
In her wanderings, she comes upon an idyllic picture of solitude: from high above, she spots a man who lives by himself on a small island on the coast in a quaint little house. When he goes out on his boat for the day, she enters the house—shades of Wong Kar Wai’s “Chungking Express” (1994)—and straightens a few things out, listens to some of his music, and, in a surprise move, rolls around for a long time in his bed naked. She intentionally leaves behind a single strand of hair.
This sequence is a prime example of what Antonika does so well in “Nothing Personal”: she creates a mood at once sensuous and unsettling. She never allows the audience to feel too confident about the characters’ motivations or where the story may be heading next.
The lonely man on the island turns out to be Stephen Rea, who, when he finds the woman hanging around his place, tells her she can work in his garden for food. The two have an almost instantaneous rapport, albeit contentious. They strike a deal, at the woman’s demand, to never discuss any personal matters with each other. No leading questions allowed.
Without even knowing each other’s names, they slowly but surely slip into an odd life together. It has its own soothing rhythms that revolve around their shared meals and love of music. But they are also always playing their game: as they grow closer, it becomes ever more challenging to stick to this rule of no personal questions.
By focusing on the smallest details of their life—their work outside, the songs they listen to together, the books they pass around in the house—Antoniak, working with the sharp cinematographer Daniel Bouquet, creates a convincing world in miniature for her characters. Rea’s house comes alive to the point where the audience knows its way around its every charming corner.
In fact, over the course of the film’s 85 minutes, the two rarely leave the premises. In one joyous sequence, they go into town to get drunk and dance at a pub; in another, Rea makes a considerable journey to try to find out more background information on his new companion.
The house essentially becomes their family home; the two become something of a married couple. But Antoniak is careful to keeping us guessing as to what is the exact nature of this relationship.
Rea is much older than Verbeek. Does he view her as the daughter he perhaps never had or as a romantic or sexual interest to replace his departed wife?
For her part, is Verbeek using this older man or is there the possibility that she might be falling in love with him? Antoniak never completely answers these questions.
Also to her credit, the director sticks to her guns and avoids any big reveals toward the end that would explain how these characters wound up so damaged. Things never come to a boiling point; no one finally breaks down in tears to tell his or her sad story of past woes and to confess his or her true feelings for the other. These are just two strange people who remain strange, never completely knowable to the audience. The intimacy they achieve together is beautiful but nothing like the kind of intimacy a Hollywood film would usually feel obligated to deliver.
This turns out to be one of Rea’s best roles in recent years. There is always a scary undercurrent to this loner, who on occasion has sudden, slightly violent outbursts—kicking over furniture and such—that nevertheless have little effect on his woman friend. In the film’s most unsettling sequence, the two go rabbit hunting, and he brandishes his rifle in a way threatening to her. On their walk home, he further becomes upset and throws a dead rabbit at her. For unknown reasons, she takes these incidents in stride.
Antoniak works things toward a sublime conclusion to her story. Of particular note is a masterful and enigmatic coda that rhymes with the film’s opening scene, thus bringing things full circle—but still, thank you, with no easy answers.
Reviewed by Jeff Farr
Stephen Rea
Lotte Verbeek
An Olive Films release.
Written and Directed by Urszula Antoniak.
Produced by Reinier Selen, Edwin van Meurs.
Director of Photography, Daniel Bouquet.
Editor, Nathalie Alonso Casale.
Score by Ethan Rose.
Running time: 85 minutes.