Film, TV and the Arts

Film, TV and the Arts

Monday, 31 October 2011

Film Review: Contagion

Coughs and sneezes spread diseases, and also make a very decent thriller

Director: Steven Soderburgh
Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns
Cast: Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Jennifer Ehle & Marion Cotillard
A virulent and highly deadly virus spreads across the globe after an initial breakout in South East Asia. As mortality rates rise and rise and chaos takes hold on the streets, the US Centre of Disease Control and the World Health Organisation struggle to find a cure.
Running Time: 106m 15s
Certificate: 12A - Contains moderate physical and psychological threat and brief medical gore

One of the messages of Contagion is that public hysteria is as dangerous as a vicious, international virus. Funny then that it’s being released in cold and flu season, as this quietly unnerving film will never let you look at coughs and sneezes in the same way ever again.

In an age where many of us will have been in a room with somebody who had swine flu, this is a thriller which seems closer to our perception of reality than most, veering as it does toward the docudrama, hypothetical though it maybe. Somewhere in South East Asia, the “wrong kind of bat has met up with the wrong kind of pig”, unleashing a virus which is tearing through the world’s population.

Patient zero is Gwyneth Paltrow, who picked up the bug in Hong Kong, before stopping off for a brisk bit of adultery in Chicago, and then seeing her hubbie (Matt Damon), by which point she’s infected enough people to start a spread which cannot be controlled. Suddenly, every single door handle, handrail, bus seat and ramekin of bar nuts have all become unwitting and inanimate harbourers of the invisible villain of the piece.

What follows is an intensely gripping film which is essentially a serial killer thriller: think Zodiac, but with germs. Instead of policemen, we have doctors, desperately trying to stop the seemingly unstoppable.

It is notable that this is a multi-stranded, international drama in the manner of Babel or 360, but it doesn’t feel like it. Much of this is because the film is very US-centric, but it is also because director Steven Soderburgh, by and large, handles the various plot-strands far better than any other director has done hitherto.

The different characters are actually linked (not so with 360) by a truly global event, and most of them are given a lot of space to breathe, though Marion Cotillard is definitely underused. One of the most effective plot-strands is Jude Law’s opportunistic blogger. (He is the butt of the film’s best line: “Blogging isn’t writing. It’s graffiti with punctuation.” I shall pass no further comment on this line.) Law’s accent may well be curious, but one can well imagine a figure like this emerging in the chaos, driven by a furious belief in conspiracy theories, greed and an over inflated sense of self-importance. Unappealing though this character is, come the climax of the film, he is raising legitimate concerns.

The whole cast is excellent without exception, and they make this sprawling plot very watchable, working from a finely-crafted script by Scott Z. Burns. Mention should also be made of the superb score by Cliff Martinez which relentlessly drives the film forward with all of the urgency of a BBC News theme, but much more finesse.

Soderbugh is often a director who dominates his work, seemingly almost another character in the telling. With his last work, The Informant, his very curious approach to screwball comedy crowded out what little entertainment there was in the film. Here, he is fairly invisible and has crafted a tight, believable thriller, complete with a dash of dark humour, which is gripping, entertaining.

This isn’t just flu season, but also Halloween season. I doubt that there is a better horror film going at the moment.


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