Grimm Up North 2011: RETREAT review

Carl Tibbetts' Retreat ought to be better than it is, which is not to say it doesn't have its good points. It's a solid, well-made piece of work, an impressive debut feature and boasts a name cast contributing some memorable performances. Still, Retreat suffers from an odd flaw; it's hell-bent on setting up an atmosphere of nail-biting suspense, and it tries to do this by constantly bringing up a question about what's actually going on. But - trying to avoid spoilers - the question the film is posing and the question any attentive viewers will probably be asking are not the same, and it means Retreat never really becomes the terrifying little chamber piece it wants to be.

Martin (Cillian Murphy, Inception, Batman: The Dark Knight) and Kate (Thandie Newton, 2012, W.) are a couple starting a vacation in an isolated cottage, the only building on a remote island cut off from cellphone signals and relying on a single generator for electricity. It quickly becomes apparent this is not a happy marriage, both of them trying to cope with a recent tragedy that looks as if neither can work past. Then things take a turn for the worse; first the generator goes down, and then their radio link to the mainland falls silent, with no sign of the boat that's meant to take them back across the water.

Out of nowhere Jack (Jamie Bell, Jumper, The Eagle) stumbles onto the island, collapsing wounded and exhausted practically on the couple's doorstep. Dressed in military fatigues he claims he's a soldier on manoeuvres, and spins a fantastical, horrifying explanation for the absence of any message from the mainland. There's been a viral outbreak that's ravaged the population, killing people in the thousands, and the three of them need to barricade the cottage against any survivors who might try and take it for themselves. It sounds impossible, but Martin and Kate don't have much choice except to play along - but is Jack out of his mind, or could he actually be telling the truth?

The trouble with Retreat is, what this question boils down to in dramatic terms is not whether or not Jack's story is true; it's whether or not he's a threat. Is he trying to help the couple, or does he have some kind of darker ulterior motive? Murphy is as reliable as ever, hugely naturalistic; Bell makes for a fairly convincing hard man, those jug ears the only trace of the child actor from Billy Elliot, and even Thandie Newton, often criticised for lack of range or wooden delivery manages some genuinely enthralling scenes - particularly a later moment playing off Bell. But while the script has some depth, and the actors invest it with a fair degree of life it's never remotely in question Martin and Kate are in danger here and now.

Again, to be fair, Bell never once gets close to any kind of cartoon psychopathy; he holds back as much as he lets out, all soft voice and slow, careful body language for much of the time he's on screen, and when he does blow up it's convincingly disturbing. But whether the film wants you to believe his story or not - it tries both at different times - every single plot beat is plainly geared towards establishing he's a menace, as well as being predictable tropes you've more than likely seen before lifted from other, frequently better films.

It's difficult to discuss specifics without ruining the film, and Retreat is worth seeing unspoilt; given the story seems like a foregone conclusion the twist is admittedly fairly smart and does carry some weight thanks to Bell's ability to command some measure of sympathy even at his most intimidating. But even after that the epilogue holds no surprises. Despite the efforts of the three leads the script plainly isn't interested in speculating whether or not Jack's there to help out, and when it does play at portraying the spread of an epidemic (not saying how!) it does so with the same predictable tropes of any blockbuster from the past ten years or more.

Retreat is still worth seeing; it's an impressive debut from Tibbets, who's clearly well aware how lucky he is to have landed this cast for his first film. Technically it's especially accomplished. Shooting apparently took little more than a month, though you wouldn't immediately think so; Tibbets, backed up by DP Chris Seager shows little if any trace of first-time jitters, with some tremendous views of North Wales and the Outer Hebrides where only a couple of scenes are marred by awkward, glaring bloom. Retreat still works as a bizarre, haunting little character drama, and the twist is a memorable one - a little crowbarred in, but still affecting.

But that central flaw does bring the film down quite some way. Ultimately the premise does feel like a case of bait and switch: the question of whether or not the disease actually exists is plainly not as important as you might have expected. And it's not merely that this leaves you feeling cheated - the question the film asks instead ("Is Jamie Bell's character a bad man?") is never really in doubt. There's never any actual suspense, just a couple of mild boo scares. See Retreat for the gorgeous scenery, some talented actors giving unexpected depth to fairly broad roles and an ending which manages real, memorable pathos - just don't expect to be frightened.

(Retreat was screened as part of Manchester's 3rd Grimm Up North festival, run from 6th-9th October 2011.) 
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