Saturday, 9 April 2011

Film Review: Unknown

Rating: 5.5/10

Set in Berlin, Unknown re-establishes old-style spy conventions in a gripping and somewhat controversial narrative with a slightly flaking sense of suspense. Liam Neeson pulls the assassin off convincingly, mainly because he isn't new to the thriller. However at times Neeson’s excessive Americanism overwhelms the film’s initial experience as an international spy thriller, or as director Collet- Serra describes it, “a reverse amnesia movie”.

Release date: Feb. 18 (Warner Bros.)
Production: Dark Castle Entertainment, Studio Babelsberg
Cast: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenwriters: Oliver Butcher, Stephen Cornwell
Based on the novel by: Didier Van Cauwelaert
Producers: Joel Silver, Leonard Goldberg, Andrew Rona
Rated PG-13, 113 minutes
The audience is originally introduced to Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) and his wife, Liz (January Jones), as they arrive in Berlin for a biotech conference. After dropping his wife off at the hotel, Harris abruptly heads back to the airport where he forgot his briefcase. On his way to the airport his taxi skids and an accident occurs which leaves Harris with a semi-severe concussion and memory loss. In the confusion he returns to the hotel and his wife, who doesn’t recognize him at all, only to find that another man (Aidan Quinn) has taken his identity. Harris struggles to relocate himself in a cold and somewhat unforgiving Berlin.

Liam Neeson’s Dr. Harris starts putting the pieces of his ‘unknown’ identity together. In search for help regarding the truth about his identity and the mysteries surrounding him, he pursues the cab driver from the crash, Gina (Diane Kruger), and a retired Stasi officer, Jurgen (Bruno Ganz). Kruger, a star in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, is to some extent unpersuasive in her role as a Bosnian immigrant scraping by. On the other hand, as a crafty Cold War survivor, Bruno Ganz’s character certainly represents the most suitable essential, and compelling element in the film. The perfect mise-en-scene of the introduction to Ganz’s Jurgen, is a relief in the otherwise insignificant and underplayed portrayal of the true potential of the almost expired spy film genre. Considering the Hitchcockian blonde January Jones play; her skimpy presence subtracts rather than adds to Collet-Serra’s reference of ‘the bombshell with a hidden agenda’.

The director keeps the action almost entirely fixed to Neeson's character’s point of view, providing a steady flow of suspense and paranoia. Overall the choice of Liam Neeson in the casting role of Dr. Martin Harris was effective for director Collet Serra’s intention to give the character of Harris the right combination of punch and pathos. Nevertheless it feels as if Neeson’s Harris is feebly given the excuse to merely act as a bad guy in a city where he doesn't speak the language.

Nonetheless Collet-Serra and cinematographer Flavio Labiano give Berlin a lively and menacing consistency, juxtaposing the city's rougher locales and the five-star hotel where the conference takes place. Collet-Serra’s adapted the novel Out of My Head, by Didier van Cauwlaert, originally set in Paris, by changing the setting to Berlin, a city still looking for its own identity. This switch perfectly suits the story and is evident in the way that the city itself resonates with the themes and characters in the film. Describing his decision and ultimate satisfaction with Berlin as the chosen setting, Collet-Serra stated that he found it very easy to create a visual language for the film. The film’s overall feeling of paranoia with a mix of stateliness is somehow effective, even though some of its twists are far-fetched and the final showdown predictable.

As Neeson's character (and the camera) shudders through the German capital, it becomes clear that Berlin is the real star of Unknown. Where the story clearly pokes at German history and current tensions between Germans and recent immigrants the film unknowingly raises awareness of the reality of globalization, revealing America’s plummet into the Europe, taking Germany in its stride.

Unknown is out in theatres now.

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