For Natalie Dormer‘s writing debut alongside director Anthony Byrne, she does a fantastic job developing a thriller that maintains the sense of mystery from start to finish. Dormer plays Sofia, a blind piano player in London who hears the suicide or possible murder of her upstairs neighbor, Veronique (Emily Ratajkowski). Veronique was a woman with a troubled history and connections to the criminal underworld through her father Milos Radic (Jan Bijvoet), a Serbian war criminal facing tribunals in the UK. By default, her death puts Sofia in the crosshairs of Radic as well as the people trying to get to Radic. While the movie isn’t consistently great along its 110 minute running time, there are spells along the way worth mentioning in this In Darkness review.
Plot and Characters
I dived into this movie without watching any of the trailers that were released, so my understanding of the story was that Sofia is an innocent blind woman caught in an immensely troubling situation. But as you move through the first act, you realize that she isn’t a straightforward protagonist. There’s quite a bit she’s hiding about her past, seen through broken bouts of flashbacks and her less than satisfying answers to other characters, the London police among them.
Sofia is a faulty narrator. For one, she can’t rely on the sense of sight, leaving most of what she experiences to be an incomplete experience. When we understand events as she understands them, even though we can see what happens, there’s a realization that we don’t have the complete picture.
As she also decides to be coy and secretive with some of her actions, there’s also a feeling that none of this was happenstance. She’s not as anomalous as we think she is in the sequence of events, and the paths leading to the finale spring some shocks and surprises to significant effect. You’re inevitably going to be rewinding the movie at the very end because of some “Huh!?” moments. This isn’t because there were glaring errors or plot holes, but because we ought to pay attention to the details, details we miss because we take specific visual cues for granted.
There were some moments of brilliance in In Darkness with the camera involving Dormer’s character and Ed Skrein’s Marc, a security personnel figure whose allegiance is tricky to ascertain. A one-take fight sequence in the middle of the street presents what Marc’s truly capable of while demonstrating Byrne’s talents with the camera. The choreography of the fight interlaced with the sound mixing, the volatility of the action and the camera creates one hell of a scene. It’s a bloody sequence with several moving parts, making its execution very impressive.
Aside from this one scene stealer, there are periods in which Byrne uses some methods to embed us in Sofia’s experience. With some scenes, Byrne plays with insufficient light to engulf the picture in darkness. In the beginning, Sofia moves around her apartment after returning from work, suspicious that someone else is present with her. As she moves around, we get light through the windows from the outside lamp posts and some barely-there table lamps inside. We don’t see much just as she does. The idea’s to rob us of our visual experience, and this tactic is employed later as well.
Sofia runs into a bunch of teenagers as she walks home through a neighborhood and the men begin to harass her. We see her interactions with the men by way of silhouettes against a graffiti-filled wall, how they approach her and try to harm her, pushing her down to the ground. We don’t see all the visceral details of the exchange and it’s by design. Byrne is most effective with this method in the scenes shot at night. Of course, when daylight arrives, it’s a more difficult task to employ, but when it is used it has to be applauded.
Sound-Mixing and Stationary Shots
Another off-shoot that relies a little on cinematography along with sound-mixing is the stationary frame and slow camera movements, best used at the start with Veronique’s murder scene. Sofia arrives home and hears Veronique squabbling with a man. The camera’s deliberately slow and steady, pausing as Sofia does so we can dwell on the sounds upstairs. What Veronique says. What the man says. How Veronique runs about upstairs before she falls to her death.
In combination with the use of darkness, the slow camera movements and stationary frames push us to rely on more than the sense of sight. What do we hear? By making these decisions, Byrne and co do everything they can to push us into Sofia’s head.
Once you make a couple of rewinds and retakes of the movie’s events, In Darkness comes off as a smart mystery movie for writing debutant Natalie Dormer. Throw in a couple of substantial plot twists to the creative decisions behind the camera, and you have a decent film for a weekend at home.