In our second review of Peter Sattler’s hard-hitting Guantanamo Bay-set drama Camp X-Ray starring Kirsten Stewart, Martin Carr explains why the film deserves to be seen by a wider audience.
Guantanamo Bay is synonymous with people being held against their will, in a place where their human rights are neatly sidestepped for the sake of a greater good. Our chest beating allies across the pond have gone to great lengths, under the joint auspices of truth and justice to guarantee the continued existence of this terrorist pig pen. Stuck in a jurisdictional black hole just beyond the boundaries of our so called civilised world, it remains a dangerous topic to tackle. That Camp X Ray manages to explore certain issues without feeling like a sabre rattling exercise, is the first of many things director Peter Sattler manages to get right.
Pulling few punches he focuses his attention on one central relationship, meaning that outside of these perimeters the film loses momentum. Kristen Stewart and Payman Maadi play the unlikely pairing at its centre, upon which our dramatic investment hinges. Sattler uses the austere imagery of floodlit wire cages and soul destroying routine as a counterpoint to this burgeoning friendship. In which Stewart hands us a solid performance, making sure we forget her Twilight back catalogue and Huntsman misdemeanour.
In pivotal dialogue scenes she more than holds her own against Camp X-Ray’s most riveting discovery who is locked in a cell for most of the running time and dominates often through silence. An intellectual firebrand that battles the futility of his situation, whether expounding the virtues of Sudoku or dissecting Severus Snape’s deeper intentions. It is Ali who uses his natural magnetism to voice opinion and address issues, which few others are developed enough to attempt.
Beyond the verbal exchanges Camp X-Ray falls back on stereotype a touch and certain scenes feel convoluted and signposted. But these minor flaws are forgiven in light of the bravery elsewhere where Sattler chooses to avoid undue scenes of torture which would have detracted from the overall message. Instead he settles on implication rather than graphic depiction to hammer home the point which strips away impact to an extent whilst also robbing us of the guilt and remorse, which are inherent by products and minimise narrative closure.
Now I take nothing away from Stewart and Maadi who are outstanding in their scenes together, but lack of development outside of this ultimately undermines everything else. For me Camp X Ray is an important film worth watching similar in tone to Schindler’s List or 12 Years A Slave. But what separates McQueen and Spielberg from Sattler is well rounded peripheral characterisation. At the conclusion of Camp X-Ray you should be appalled not comfortably numb. And it should be the issues which cause debate, not the performances that brought them to your attention irrespective of calibre.