The British-born writer and director Sean Ellis made a name for himself with his 2006 debut feature Cashback, which he adapted from his funny, original and slightly disturbing 2004 Academy Award-nominated short of the same title about an art student working in a Sainsbury’s who can stop time. His second feature, The Brí¸ken, is a stylish psychological thriller set in a chilly, grey London that wears its debt to Edgar Allan Poe on its sleeve.
Lena Headey (who proves that she can excel at serious, thoughtful roles after her B-movie turns as the matriarch in 300 and Sarah in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) stars as Gina McVey, a composed, elegant woman working as a radiologist at an anonymous London hospital. At an intimate birthday party for her father, an American diplomat played by Richard Jenkins, a mirror suddenly crashes to the floor, with the promise of bad luck setting off a frightening chain of events. The next day, Gina sees a woman who looks like her drive by in a car identical to hers. She follows her doppelgänger to a flat where she is shocked to find a photo of the mysterious woman with her father. The film cuts to a horrific car crash, with Gina waking up in hospital, lucky to be alive, but unable to remember any of the events leading up to the accident.
As Gina tries to piece together fragments of the events, and as mirrors continue to shatter all around her and her family, she realises that reality – and the people closest to her – may not be what they seem. Ellis keeps the audience wondering whether Gina is mentally damaged or possibly the victim of some kind of sinister conspiracy, with her enigmatic father and boyfriend (played with icy stillness by the French actor Melvil Poupaud) somehow privy to the dark secret that she’s trying to unravel.
There are a few false notes in the film; writing dialogue is not Ellis’s strong point and the movie is at its best when he lets the visuals do the talking. Much of the film’s strength lies in its measured pacing and perfectly composed shots, and Ellis uses Gina’s job at the hospital as a source for the sterile atmosphere and clinical colour palette of steely greys and flickering green hues. The film is given a retro feel by its impeccably stylish use of mansion blocks as locations, and by details like old rotary phones that suggest a 50s, Hitchcockian sensibility (a tribute made all the more obvious by a seriously disturbing take on the shower scene). Scenes shot in an impossibly empty London help reinforce Gina’s feelings of terror and isolation, while the score crucially creates a palpable sense of tension, with shrill strings and white noise often reaching an ominous crescendo.
Ellis has successfully crafted a grown-up, sleek thriller that explores the sinister side of split personalities, using suspense rather than gore to frighten his audience. Refreshingly ambiguous, the film doesn’t provide any neat answers to its supernatural questions.