This is the second time I wrote this review. The first time, I was ready to tell you that In Darkness was an ill-conceived and disappointing erotic thriller that totally wastes its star/co-writer Natalie Dormer’s sharp eyes and signature smirk by throwing her into the role of a stoic blind woman. I was railing against the film’s leering at her body and its convoluted plot. But as I wrote, I realized I’d been blind to what Dormer and her co-writer/director Anthony Byrne were doing. They meant to deny us her standard charms. They meant to repulse with their crass objectification of female bodies. They meant to make me feel off-kilter and disturbed. And realizing that, I can only say bravo. This may not be a movie I enjoyed, but it’s one I admire.
In Darkness follows Sofia (Dormer), a blind pianist who is the only witness to the suspicious death of her neighbor Veronique (a sultry Emily Ratajkowski), the gorgeous daughter of a possible war criminal (a grim Jan Bijvoet). Naturally, Sofia didn’t see anything. But her burgeoning friendship with the glamorous and troubled girl has both the cops and criminals curious about how much she really knows. A schlubby detective asks if blindness gives her heightened senses. Sofia will need all her senses and her wits about her to stay alive when a handsome, could-be killer (Ed Skrein) and his crocodile’s smile-wearing sister (a vibrant, scene-stealing Joely Richardson) begin stalking her.
Dormer takes a major risk in this role. Playing blind can lead to deeply hokey acting complete with mournful mid-distance stares and melodramatic mugging. But she favors a reserved approach that offers an often enigmatic expression. While watching the film this frustrated me, as I wanted to see the spunky charisma I’ve come to expect from her on The Tudors and Game of Thrones. But upon reflection, such sparks of vivaciousness would have been ill-fitted to Sofia, who has survived by remaining calm in the face of extreme horror. There are brief moments where Dormer gets to break out of this borderline suffocating stoicism, crumbling into panic when accosted on a busy street, and giving way to fury when confronted with an atrocious revelation. Still, the final effect feels a bit muted.
In my first draft of this review, I lamented the ogling of Dormer, writing. “In Darkness is happy to leer at its leading lady, sitting on tight close-ups of her flawless but expressionless face, then reveling in shots of her bare back and breasts in showers and sex scenes. Dormer’s partner in the latter (Skrein) is spared this lusty gaze, treated chiefly as a pedestal for propping up her breasts.” The abruptness and directness of the nudity shocked and annoyed me, as did the pronouncedly Male Gaze. But as I drafted my review, I realized this was by design.
“The voyeurism of this ogling lens is amplified by the objectification being that of a blind woman,” I wrote, working it out. “Most times when a movie leers at a female character, it is voyeuristic. We are spying, not invited into this moment. But looking at a blind woman in this manner draws a greater attention to this trespass and lack of consent. Which maybe is Byrne’s intention? I’m torn. Because while he takes plenty of opportunities to run his camera up and down Dormer’s nude form, he intercuts these images with ones clearly meant to make us cringe.
“In the shower, when she exposes her breasts, In Darkness jumps to shots of Veronique’s bruised but still exquisite corpse. Her plump, blue lips, her smooth, grey skin are intercut with Dormer’s live flesh twisting under the spray of water. The sex scene cuts from the writhing couple to flashbacks of a frightened little girl trembling from some mysterious terror. These sequences are titillating and disturbing, which might be precisely the point of all of this leering. Perhaps Byrne wants us to see Sofia as the world does, beautiful and vulnerable. Then this intense intercutting demands we consider her context, the fears that plague and shape her.”
From there, I thought of the other standout elements of In Darkness and realized Bryne and Dormer want to lure you into leering, then push you into discomfort, subverting this convention. Then to further express Sofia’s perspective and underline her plight, they offer unique devices. One is aural, another visual. At this point, I scrapped my draft and began again, because I realized I’d gotten this movie all wrong.
Sofia is a pianist who works in an orchestra that creates film scores. To prepare for work, she listens to tracks on headphones or in her home. And because these are movie soundtracks, they are songs rife with tension, turning an otherwise banal scene of taking out her trash into something ominous. This music being diegetic makes it play as meta-commentary on her obliviousness to the threat around her. She can hear the music, but cannot see how it relates to the figure lurking in the shadows. Our suspense is heightened by this seeming dramatic irony.
Later, Sofia is attacked by a gang of hooligans. And rather than frantic shots of their fight, Byrne favors a shot of a graffitied wall, on which their shadows violently collide. Sofia has told us she is light sensitive. So it’s suggested that this is a poetic spin on how she saw this threat, not as a particular face or figure attacking her, but dark shadows moving in to do her harm.
For all this In Darkness is more inventive and smart than I originally gave it credit for. Had I watched it on my own, just for fun, I might have walked away with a shrug, thinking it another mediocre thriller that misused its charming leading lady. But sitting down to review, the film cracked open as I considered it. I saw the method behind the sexual menace of ogling a blind woman, the objectification of a corpse. And I’m grudgingly impressed. While this was far from a fun watch, it was enriched by chewing on it for a bit. And to explain that in full, it was crucial I give you a peek into my critic’s notebook and process.
My only remaining complaint is that the story itself isn’t as clever as its best devices. In Darkness’ simple but intriguing setup is too quickly complicated with a string of convoluted twists. As it tumbles into a blood-splashed finale, Byrne and Dormer make script choices that rob its tale of moral complexity. So, the answer to who killed Veronique proves disappointing, and a climactic kill feels like a strangely safe call. Despite these fumblings, In Darkness is inventive, surprising, sexy, and repugnant. And to achieve all that is pretty damn thrilling, even if it’s not fun. In short, I can’t wait to see what Dormer the screenwriter shows us next.