Dir/scr: Sean Ellis. UK/France. 2008. 88mins.
In his second feature The Brøken the talented British director Sean Ellis (Cashback) traffics in a melange of styles and historical references that range from the poetic horror works of Jean Cocteau (Orpheus) to the social malaise and extreme alienation of Roman Polanski (The Tennant), Stanley Kubrick (The Shining) and David Lynch (Eraserhead).

His ambition and historical grounding are impressive, though it is not always to his own film's advantage. The story of a beautiful young Londoner increasingly unnerved by the very distinct possibility she has a doppelganger, The Broken is more successful evoking mood and atmosphere than articulating an existential dread and foreboding given how frequently Ellis's screenplay poaches other horror titles. The movie is exceptionally well made technically, though it sometimes suffers from the absence of a distinct personality or point of view.

The UK/French work premiered in the Midnight section at Sundance. Gaumont opens the movie in France this spring. Ellis' movie recalls Robert Harmon's underrated 2002 Wes Craven production They, and the eerie overhead shots of a depopulated London suggests Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. The movie's balance of art decor and the inexplicable is more in the vein of the art-house projects of Guillermo del Toro (The Devil's Backbone), and is likely to be championed more in the UK, France and Spain. The director's Cashback disappeared without a trace theatrically in the US. This work is likely more temping to larger US distributors due to its stronger ancillary potential.

A radiologist at a large London hospital Gina McVey (Headey) has all the vestiges of a highly desirable life, financial independence, handsome French architect boyfriend (Poupaud) and a politically prominent father (Jenkins) who's the country's American ambassador. During a family celebration of her father's birthday, the sudden shattering of a family mirror seemingly initiates a cycle of unexplainable and strange actions.

On the street, she witnesses a car identical to her own being driven by a woman with a staggering physical resemblance. She follows the woman to her flat, an elliptical act that ends with her being nearly killed in a violent collision with a truck. She suffers only minor injuries though upon her release, she is increasingly unable to distinguish between states of reality and is haunted by the idea that something radically wrong has befallen her boyfriend.

Ellis trained as a photographer, and his visual storytelling is undeniably strong. Working with a strong cinematographer (Angus Hudson) and excellent production designer (Morgan Kennedy), Ellis is very good at locating the sinister and strange in the most common shapes and objects, like the photographic negatives Gina parses over at her work to the steady downpour of a bathroom leak. Headey convincingly exhibits the stress and peculiarity of being not alone and increasingly convinced that her world is violently asunder, like the sexually tinged violation that haunts her dreams.

Ellis is less sure in reaching a strong and satisfying ending. The closer the story gets to revealing itself, The Broken loses its concentration and intensity. The movie's far more effective, scary and emotionally involving the more it remains opaque and mysterious. Horror's greatest strength is the irrational obliterating the known and accepted.

A late shower sequence involving an important character is suitably tense and disturbing though it becomes too over explicit and somewhat undercuts the major revelation of Gina at the end. Fortunately, Ellis finds a downbeat and pessimistic ending that echoes its various sources. The Brøken is not always original though it is occasionally a succinct example of the movies' power to frighten and unsettle.

Production companies/backers
Gaumont (33) 146 432 180
Left Turn Films

Executive producer
Franck Chorot

Lene Bausager
Sean Ellis

Director of photography
Angus Hudson

Production designer
Morgan Kennedy

Scott Thomas

Guy Farley

Main cast
Lena Headey
Richard Jenkins
Michelle Duncan
Asier Newman
Melvil Poupaud