Dir. Stuart Hazeldine. UK. 2009. 97mins
Screenwriter Stuart Hazeldine makes a promising directorial debut with Exam, an intriguing mixture of dystopian science fiction and intense psychological thriller. A single, claustrophobic location, a set number of characters and a race against the clock are all effectively deployed to create tension in a latterday variation on the locked-room mysteries popular in crime fiction from Gaston Leroux to Akimitsu Takagi.
Hazeldine doesn’t manage to sustain a smart premise to a satisfying conclusion but the attractive cast and twisted tale offer enough marketable elements to make Exam a commercially viable genre item in the UK and beyond.
We are hooked by the shifting allegiances, character flaws and emotions unleashed by the pressures of a confined space and racing clock.
The initial scenes of Exam suggest an Agatha Christie version of popular reality television series The Apprentice with an added nod in the direction of the notorious Stanford University Prison Experiment from 1971 which previously inspired Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Das Experiment (2001).
Eight candidates enter a windowless room where they will face the final exam in a process that could secure them a dream job with a mysterious multinational corporation. A sinister invigilator (Salmon) informs them that they have eighty minutes to answer the single question which is set out on the exam paper before them. If they spoil their paper, communicate with the armed guard at the door or the invigilator or leave the room they will be disqualified.
When the candidates turn over the exam papers they discover only a blank page and thus must decide whether to cooperate with each other or act out of self interest over the next eighty minutes. White (Mably) quickly establishes himself as the alpha male of the group, giving the other candidates Reservoir Dog-style nicknames (Blonde, Black, Brown etc) and urging everyone to work together to discover a way of revealing the question.
The Agatha Christie element of the tale comes in watching the original band of eight being whittled down as the minutes tick away. More compelling are the fresh revelations that are drip-fed to us, including the revelation of a contagious virus that is loose in the population outside, the nature of the activities undertaken by the company and the personal weaknesses and strengths of the remaining candidates.
Hazeldine maintains a good deal of suspense and tension during the first hour. Sharp editing and fluid camerawork help to distract the viewer from the fact that Exam is, at heart, a film about a group of people bickering in a room. Instead, we are hooked by the shifting allegiances, character flaws and emotions unleashed by the pressures of a confined space and racing clock.
The expository dialogue doesn’t always have the bite one might have hoped for and some of the performances are a little stilted but Exam does provide a strong showcase for some of the cast members, with Mably exuding cocky arrogance as White, Jimi Mistry shifty and devious as Brown, Pollyanna McIntosh finding the emotional vulnerability of Brunette and Chukwudi Iwuji lending moral outrage to Black.
Unfortunately, Hazeldine and co-writer Simon Garrity are unable to steer events towards a satisfying denouement with the closing moments and a post-mortem explanation of developments some of the weaker links in an otherwise watchable tale.
Independent Film Company
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