Disaster movies are competitions of scale. Each wants to be bigger and more deadly than the last. There is an obsession with escape and heroism. The hero disregards the rules – there are lives to be saved, darn it, and he will not abide by the rule book and see them die. Not on his watch.
In contrast, the Norwegian-language The Tunnel plays out as slow-motion horror, made all the more horrifying because so much of it is based on fact. Opening cards tell audiences that there are 1,100 tunnels in Norway. Most do not have escape routes and that eight major fires have occurred in these mountain passageways since 2011.
It is close to Christmas and the masses are out on the road, trying to make it home for the holidays. Stein (Thorbjorn Harr) is an emergency rescue worker about to take a desk job when the worst happens: Somewhere in a 9km-long tunnel, a fire has broken out.
The number of deaths from a tunnel fire might not be on the scale of a Los Angeles superquake or a tsunami striking Japan’s east coast, but director Pal Ole prefers to induce fear, not awe. People here do not outrun explosions. They suffocate from smoke that creeps into their cars, little by little.
Deaths in this film happen for the most trivial reasons, but in real life, that is how man-made disasters occur. Here, the line between catastrophe and safety is shockingly thin, resting on factors such as the amount of snowfall, the volume of traffic, in which direction a street camera is positioned and the number of ventilation fans in operation.
The tone is so realistic that at times, the film feels more like a re-enactment of a past tragedy of the sort found on cable-television documentaries.
The authenticity extends to human behaviour as well. When disaster strikes, a cognitive fog descends on all involved and this film portrays the confusion well.
At a tunnel operations centre every few minutes, the arrival of information on a piecemeal basis throws things into disarray, while inside the tunnel, motorists stare at one another, as if to ask: “How scared should I be right now?”
MADE IN ITALY
Heavy emotional truths are unpacked in Made In Italy, a story of a group of Brits whose Northern European shells melt away under the rays of a golden Tuscan sun, leaving souls unbared.
If that set-up sounds corny, that is because it is, and actor James D’Arcy, making his directorial debut, is ill-equipped to excavate anything in his screenplay that feels fresh or profound.
Robert (Liam Neeson) is a free-spirited artist brought into collision with estranged son Jack (Micheal Richardson) because of the crumbling home left to them by Jack’s dead mother, a native of the region.
The home is obviously a stand-in for the relationship and as the neglected structure is revived, so is the bond between father and son. Neeson and Richardson – father and son in real life – do a fine job portraying what it is like to rip wounds open so they can heal instead of fester.
VIEW IT /THE TUNNEL
PG13, 105 minutes, opens today
MADE IN ITALY
PG13, 94 minutes, opens today
THE SECRETS WE KEEP
NC16, 97 minutes, now showing
PG13, 100 minutes, opens today
But the surrounding sub-plot, involving a needlessly complicated seduction that takes place amid a heavily romanticised version of Italy – the food, the architecture and the charm of a people who live life to the fullest – might cause eye-rolling to occur. Eat Pray Love (2010) syndrome, the reduction of a “foreign culture” to not much more than a spa treatment, is alive and well.
THE SECRETS WE KEEP
The erratic The Secrets We Keep opens promisingly. Maja (Noomi Rapace), a survivor of horrific World War II experiences, is living in post-war United States when she spots a man, Thomas (Joel Kinnaman). She believes him to be a particularly sadistic former German soldier, living in plain sight with a new identity. But the only person who can help her, husband Lewis (Chris Messina), also the town doctor, thinks she is mistaken.
This movie is a remake of Death And The Maiden (1994), which is based on the play of the same name. The original shows were set in an unnamed South American country, with the suspected villains accused of working for a brutal former regime.
For some reason, that setting has been changed. The original themes of doubt and vengeance struggle to emerge – how much proof is required for crimes as barbaric as those that Thomas is supposed to have committed? What punishment is appropriate? – but this update’s fixation on achieving a bloody catharsis drowns out other ideas.
Films opening this week but not reviewed include the South Korean action-comedy Okay! Madam. Mi-young (Uhm Jeong-hwa) is a bread-seller in a market. When her husband wins a trip, she looks forward to making her first overseas holiday. After terrorists take over her flight, a side of her unknown to everyone, including herself, begins to emerge.
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