The Chamber (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Studiocanal) Running Time: 90 minutes approx.
It has been said that the simplest play to film is a small cast trapped in a lift. That may be so but as Ben Parker demonstrates in his debut, it doesn’t have to be simple, with this taut drama that subscribes to the theory that the worst things happen at sea.
The unlikely setting of this Sartre-esque claustrophobic thriller is at the bottom of the Yellow Sea, off the coast of North Korea, where submersible pilot Mats (Johannes Kuhnke) is ordered by his captain (David Horovitch) to take three person US special ops team Edwards (Charlotte Salt), Denholm (Elliot Levey) and Parks (James McArdle) on a secret recovery mission on the ocean bottom, but most importantly to ask no questions.
Mats however cannot contain his curiosity and his persistent asking for the truth from his passengers is met with physical threats to keep quiet. Their task is eventually revealed but Mats warns them it will have severe consequences for the small craft but Edwards gives the order anyway. Mats is proved correct and the damaged submersible quickly floods with the chances of survival becoming increasingly slim.
Clarifying the Sartre reference above, his famous play Huis clos, three people are locked in a waiting room in Hell and annoy each other with their foibles, resulting in the conclusion that “Hell is other people”. Whilst this was the driving purpose of Sartre’s existentialist parable, most other stories sharing this basic premise use it as a plot point and a conduit to create drama amongst their characters.
Parker has done the same here, supplanting the spacious waiting room for a small, submerged aquatic vehicle, with Mats, as the outsider, refusing to be kept in the dark by his passengers – rightfully so, as he learns that their mission is a politically motivated act of destruction, the fallout from which threatens more than the backlash from devious point scoring.
For all the worth of the military intelligence of Edwards and her men, Mats is the only one canny enough to realise that they have been stitched up like the proverbial kippers and are destined to end up like them too. Parks is the first to feel the cabin fever effects and calls to abort the mission, but Edwards steadfastly sticks to the plan like a good soldier because orders is orders.
The group dynamic is a construct of familiar tropes but this is easily forgiven as Parker exploits them wisely enough to allow him to bypass the slow build of tension and establish how this quartet will interact very quickly. Once the crisis hits and the group need to be working together, tempers flare, panic sets in and survival becomes a selfish priority.
By confining the action to a singular location, Parker potentially sets himself up for a fall through the ennui engendered by audiences if there is little to occupy or entertain them. Despite this being his first feature, Parker in fact faces this problem head on and with the guile and ingenuity of a seasoned veteran. His canvas may be small but Parker makes sure every millimetre is painted on.
Varying the camera angles and keeping the actors moving about distracts our attention from the lack of repetitive scenery, whilst successfully creating the illusion of stifling claustrophobia and, once the flooding reaches its apex, impending doom. If the constant bickering over who is to blame and the problem of just two life jackets doesn’t already make for a tense atmosphere, a simple flickering of the lights provides the horror.
Technically this is a superbly made film for a low-budget production from Wales of all places, boasting stunning photography and camerawork above and below the water surface, accompanied by a suitably moody musical score from Manic Street Preachers’ James Dean Bradfield. Subtle touches, such as the oceanic lighting hues inside the craft, or the epic closing shot reveal a remarkably astute and precise attention to detail usually lacking in a first time film.
Parker’s dedication to doing his homework is also found in the depth and credibility of the technical jargon pertaining to operating the submersible, as well as the knowledge of the potential dangers and how to possibly fix or circumvent them afterwards. It all seems very convincing – or it would if we could hear what Mats was saying; 95% of his dialogue is whispered and Studiocanal’s continuing discrimination against hard of hearing folk by not providing subtitles leaves us unable to understand what he is saying!
The other actors are also guilty of this, but it seems de rigueur for tense and dramatic dialogue to be delivered in hushed tones, so we’re stuck with it, but aside from that the performances are very commendable. None of the cast are particularly well known at the moment but this may change after this film – same for Parker who will assuredly be afforded bigger projects off the back of this debut.
Charlotte Salt’s Edwards is a tough modern women, avoiding being a caricature yet deftly handles the emotional terror later in the film. James McArdle as Parks has a curious role, caught in an endless loop of threatening Mats one minute then kowtowing to Edwards the next before going full on unhinged liability. Johannes Kuhnke portrays Mats as a stoic and dependable hero without being aloof but needs to speak up!
At 90 minutes there is a sense of expedience in the characters’ sharp change in demeanour, which could have been addressed had the first forty minutes not been so consumed with the repetition of Mats fighting with the others for information. When the drama does eventually kick in, a tense fight for survival against seemingly overwhelming odds ensues.
The Chamber is a very impressive and promising debut, pumping new life into the age old concept of claustrophobic terror, mixed with a visual flair that begs for a bigger canvas to work on, hopefully with the kinks in the story telling ironed out.
2.0 Stereo LPCM
5.1 DTS HD Master Audio
Beneath The Chamber
Rating – ***
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