*** (out of five)
Opens April 20th in Australia
Movies where disturbed men imprison women actually began on the A List, with 1965’s The Collector, directed by William Wyler from John Fowles’ novel. Starring Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar, it was nominated for three Oscars. Since then, the idiosyncratic sub-genre – call it the “Female Captive Movie”, perhaps – has taken a stroll into more exploitative territory, through such diverse fare as Boxing Helena (1993), Black Snake Moan (2006) and Captivity (2007), the last one being a definite B Picture. (Last year’s excellent Room cannot be considered part of this sub-genre; it doesn’t focus on the captive/captor relationship, nor does it follow many of the genre’s primary tropes).
Australian director Cate Shortland gives the subject the A List treatment with Berlin Syndrome, and in doing so highlights its limitations. Impeccably directed, shot and acted, there’s no denying that the script is just another take on an unhinged man who kidnaps an attractive woman and holds her captive; it is tense and suspenseful but really has nothing new to say.
As a thriller, though, it’s great fun. Clare (Teresa Palmer) is a solo tourist in Berlin. She gets picked up on the street by Andi (Max Riemelt) and, after a promising and very sexy start, things go very, very wrong. There’s not much else to say about the plot – if you know the genre, you know the story. But the execution is above average for the material. Palmer is terrific; she paints Clare in more colours than the script would seemingly allow. From the moment we meet her, we suspect Clare has more going on beneath the surface than most poor backpackers taken hostage in Europe; it feels like she’s trying to escape some sadness or tragedy, though, if so, it’s never made explicit. Once a captive, Palmer is vividly proficient at all the stages of Clare’s terror, desolation and resolve, but the actress brings even more than that, creating a physicality of fear that brings to mind Mia Farrow’s performance in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – and that’s high praise indeed. Riemelt is a strong presence too, although his character’s mental imbalance calls for him to present as dispassionate and immoveable, which limits his performance.
Shortland uses the camera well, creating some beautiful images, but she continually falls back on her favourite trick, which is to fall into a dreamy, slow-motion montage with over-reliance on an increasingly intrusive soundtrack by Bryony Marks. If you’ve seen Shortland’s debut feature, Somersault (2004), you’ll know the technique; it’s ill-used here, interrupting and slowing down the narrative and contributing to its significantly overlong running time of 116 minutes. In trying to elevate her lurid material, Shortland ignores one of its basic demands: she drops the tension. The result is an entirely watchable movie with some excellent elements, but which is an uncomfortable fit, a square peg straining to squeeze into a round hole.