Styled like a post-apocalyptic survival movie, talented short-form director Neil Mcenery-West’s feature film debut is a disappointing drama built on shaky foundations and caricature.
We often acknowledge the difficulties of the second “album” for fledgling directors. But if you’ve set the bar so low with your debut effort, things can only get better. That’s the task now facing Neil Mcenery-West whose dull post-apocalyptic styled Containment marks his first foray into feature film-making having established himself as an accomplished and award-winning short filmmaker. In fact, well-regarded Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw singled out his short Undertow, which won Best International Director and Best Actor at the New York Film Festival, for particular praise after seeing it in Cannes.
But the step up from short to feature isn’t an easy one. Indeed, it highlights the complexities of the film narrative in its longer form and the unique creative dynamic needed for the short form. Mcenery-West has demonstrated storytelling talent and after Undertow was screened at the Portobello Film Festival its head Greg Loftin said the director had achieved a “visually stunning piece of work and a very assured film.” This followed praise from Ken Russell for an earlier 16mm short. Yet, his move to feature film with Containment is riddled with distracting flaws that negate any positives.
The story hinges on an ambiguous outbreak of a dangerous substance that causes the authorities to seal off a group of housing blocks. As the inhabitants wearily awake to find they’re imprisoned in their own homes, a group led by troubled artist Mark (Lee Ross) band together to discover what’s going on. The ensemble includes wannabe gangster Sergei (Andrew Leung), kindly carer Sally (Louise Brealey), and opinionated “old dear” Enid (Sheila Reid). The imprisoned ensemble witness from their window a military-style hazmat tent erected on the grounds outside with inhabitants from a neighbouring tower block being led out of view. When one person tries to escape he is shot by a rooftop sniper. Panic breaks out among the group as the severity of their predicament sets in.
You can see what Mcenery-West wants to do. He’s eager to draw on his hero Kubrick’s cold, withdrawn approach while absorbing the bleak outlook of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. But crucially he lacks the social or political satire of both. There’s not even a shred of humour. Presented with an inner city tower block along with a range of occupants, the stage offers a great opportunity to comment on modern Britain with its diverse cultural cooking pot and the financial, emotional and socio-political fallout of recession. Yet, Mcenery-West criminally prefers to build his story around a one-dimensional ensemble of caricatures.
For a film as bleak and open-ended as Containment, subtext would have helped the medicine go down. But this uninspired rendition of post-apocalyptic genre tropes is not only lacking interest, it’s riddled with plot holes. To list them here would reveal too much about the story but in doing so I wouldn’t take anything away from Containment’s element of surprise, because it doesn’t offer that entertaining luxury. I’m still unsure why someone who’s imprisoned in their own home but has the ability, strength and tools to break through a dividing wall, can’t break down their own door to escape. There’s also a question surrounding the imprisonment itself as all the inhabitants awake to discover their predicament, none having heard any commotion while they slept. I’ll leave it with you.
Positives can certainly be found in the performances of Lee Ross and Louise Brealey who give it their all but, off the page, there’s very little to work with. The other actors, notably Leung, are hamstrung by caricature and non-existent development. Containment is a mildly diverting drama that has echoes of 28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead but none of the staying power or, importantly, the entertainment value.
Written by Daniel Stephens
Directed by: Neil Mcenery-West
Written by: David Lemon
Starring: Louise Brealey, Lee Ross
Country: UK / IMDB
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The film is released in UK cinemas September 11.