Dir: Marc Evans. UK. 2003. 93mins
Actor Colin Firth goes some way to rescuing his screen persona from being forever enslaved to his romantic alter ego Darcy with his morose presence in Trauma, in which he plays the spooked survivor of a car crash. Dishevelled, disorientated and anything but dashing, Firth's mental meltdown continues to hold the attention even when the fragmented plotline veers into some murky cul-de-sacs. An ambitious exercise in cinematic atmospherics, the film plays best as a haunting meditation on grief and self-delusion, rather than as the outright boys-horror film one might have expected from the director behind the low-budget My Little Eye.
Indeed, Trauma has more in common with Krzysztof Kieslowski's metaphysical Three Colours: Blue, about a young woman unhinged by the accidental death of her husband and daughter, than it does a conventional chiller. There are creepy moments, for sure, and a culminating death unpleasant enough to register with fans of the macabre - particularly those who suffer from arachnophobia. But the slow-burning mood of ominous portent counts for more here than any storytelling shock and awe. Trauma trades in fear, not fright.
The anguish begins in hospital where Ben (Firth) emerges from a coma to learn that his wife (Harris) has been killed in a car accident of his own doing. Or maybe not. In his stricken condition, Ben finds it increasingly difficult to wrestle fact from fiction. Visions of his wife torture him and so too the recent death of a pop superstar that seems eerily close to home. Perhaps he killed her instead' Retreating into an altered state of mental despair, Ben seeks refuge wherever he can - an enigmatic neighbour (Suvari), a psychoanalyst, a clairvoyant (Fricker), even his collection of ants. But each of them succeed only in tormenting him further. By the end, his tenuous grip on sanity has been torn away completely and he lashes out to devastating effect.
Marketing this story, which will be released in the UK through Warner Bros, will require ingenuity. Its likeliest audience appeal lies somewhere in the space between Firth's legion of female groupies and that narrower, predominantly male vein of puzzle addicts who loved being teased by films like Memento. Their common ground might be represented by Don't Look Now, a seminal film that was steamy enough to be a date movie, but also artful enough to keep the most ardent suspense fans guessing. In the case of Trauma, the question is whether there is enough emotional involvement or cryptic mystery to tempt either constituency into seeing Trauma at theatres, rather than waiting to see it at home.
Those that do pay at the box office will at least be rewarded by a UK film whose visual and aural virtuosity sets it apart from the television-influenced social-realist dramas and comedies that have come to typify this country's output. Dressed in neo-gothic garb, this is a more mythical take on contemporary London than we are used to.
Every trick in the cinematic armoury, from elliptical editing to menacing production and sound design, is deployed to create an angst-ridden canvas. But this technical tour de also comes at the expense of audience engagement. In the past, before MTV music videos and Avid digital editing suites changed the filmmaking vocabulary, directors like Don't Look Now's Nicolas Roeg could rely on shadows and dark motifs to unsettle viewers. But with even Hitchcockian devices now too hackneyed to truly disturb anymore, the tendency has been towards sensory assault and ever more disjointed narratives in order to keep ahead of viewer anticipation in this kinetic, post-modern age. The problem here is that not every image makes sense, even on a subliminal level; rather that unlock the door to our subconscious fears, this impressionistic barrage of incongruities ends up baffling. This is dislocation to the point of distraction.
On the positive side, Welsh filmmaker Marc Evans is nothing if not prescient. My Little Eye, his previous film that took the reality TV concept to horrific extremes, was developed before the Big Brother series had even hit British television. Trauma, his immediate follow-up to that claustrophobic cult favourite, effectively plugs into the emerging zeitgeist of dread and anxiety. Trauma was one of three unnerving Sundance psycho-dramas - along with November and The Machinist - that played tricks with memory and time to the point where fantasy and reality melds into one hallucinatory mindscape. It is not too much of a stretch to see in such films the first signs of a return to the paranoia and unease that marked cinema at the height of the Cold War in the late 1950s.
Director: Marc Evans
Production cos: Little Bird, First Choice Films, BBC, Isle of Man Film
International sales: Myriad Pictures
UK distribution: Warner Bros
Screenwriter: Richard Smith
Executive producers: Kirk D'Amico, Marion Pilowsky, James Mitchell, Sue Bruce-Smith, David M. Thompson
Producers: Jonathan Cavendish, Nicky Kentish Barnes
Co-producer: Lizzie Francke
Screenwriter: Richard Smith
Cinematography: John Mathieson
Production design: Crispian Sallis
Editor: Mags Arnold
Costume design: Ffion Elinor
Main cast: Colin Firth, Mena Suvari, Naomie Harris, Tommy Flanagan, Sean Harris, Brenda Fricker, Ken Cranham