Secret Number may be driven by the idea of a scientific conspiracy theory but its presentation is completely transparent. Not only is Colin Levy’s award-winning student film viewable in its entirety online, there are also accompanying diary films, recording the production process. The film is an adaptation of a short story by Igor Teper, which challenges our everyday perceptions by proposing that there is a secret number between three and four. The suggestion comes in the form of a conversation between troubled mathematician, Prof Ersheim (played by Tom Nowicki in the film), and his psychiatrist, Dr Tomlin (played by Daniel Jones). The more Ersheim insists on the existence of the number, named ‘bleem’, the more Tomlin is forced to question basic assumptions about the world around him. Perhaps Ersheim and ‘bleem’ itself are being hushed up much in the same way as Galileo’s support of heliocentrism was condemned as heresy during his lifetime. Perhaps those in power have much to gain from keeping ‘bleem’ secret from the population at large. The idea throws open some interesting questions about our individual experiences of reality (and sanity), suggesting that there is subjectivity to what is accepted and propagated as the norm.
Levy does an accomplished job of handling the material, creating a sustained air of menace and un-reality, assisted by skilful post-production visual effects. Indeed, Secret Number is an extremely well shot and nicely edited work, especially for an emerging director. However, it is a shame the film does not rise above being a straightforward drama to become a more unusual work in its visual representation of how numbers shape our understanding of the world. There are a couple of scenes in which Tomlin and Ersheim try to imagine or communicate ‘bleem’ (usually through the medium of scattered jelly beans!) but these could have been pushed further visually to produce imaginative effects and allow the audience more space to consider the existence and meaning of numbers in our everyday lives.
Rather than exploring this element, Levy made the choice to supplement the basic conversation of Igor Teper’s short story and create a more involved narrative, uniting the two men in a flashback sequence focusing on an accident experienced in Tomlin’s childhood. The addition can be interpreted as direct proof of the existence of ‘bleem’ (the victim of the accident is not identified, hinting at some sort of cover-up) or alternatively as a product of Tomlin’s increasingly confused and paranoid state. By the end of the film, there is growing ambiguity about the roles of doctor and patient. While the ending succeeds in emphasising how thin our grasp of reality can be, the accident scene also feels like the necessary twist of a more conventional thriller and, as such, slightly disappoints. Still, these reservations aside, Secret Number demonstrates a great deal of technical promise and Levy’s ability to create a tight, well-paced narrative structure.