Given the current realworld political situation in the UK (and the US, come to that) it’s likely that we’ll see a wave of near-future crisis science fiction dramas. America has thrown up the Purge series, and White Chamber sets out to envision a British civil war. The opening of this very interior drama features a camo-clad rebel holding up a dark British flag (the Union Black?) on Glastonbury Tor, and repurposed riot news footage establishing that the conflict has broken out between an oppressive government and the United Kingdom Liberation Army – though it’s blurry as to what exactly each side is fighting for, and writer-director Paul Raschid (who scripted the public school-set horror film Unhallowed Ground) takes pains not to link this made-up civil war with the issues currently dominating the front pages and the op-ed pieces, though the UKLA does seem more friendly to immigrants than the Government.
The context is all beside the point anyway, since the drama is literally more contained. A woman (Shauna Macdonald), who claims to be ‘an admin girl’, wakes up in the sort of striplit, white torture cell which has featured in a lot of enclosed space genre movies this century and is tormented by remote control – the cell can be heated up and cooled down to lethal levels and of course administers electric shocks – by a coughing mastermind (Oded Fehr). Plainly, this isn’t enough of a situation for more than a short film. After the prisoner has been put through her paces (she knows enough to jog to keep her circulation going during a freeze), we flash back a few days and get to know the staff at the torture facility (Nicholas Farrell, Amrita Acharia, Sharon Maughan) who are doing their patriotic duty or working for personal revenge as they subject a captured rebel leader to a battery of cruel tests.
It’s a tricksy film – one character presents as two people, and one actor plays two roles – with a lot of backstory – the protagonist has lost family members who fought on both sides of the war – and shifting alliances and enmities among the small cast. As Vincenzo Natali discovered in Cube, which has turned out to be one of the most influential low-budget films ever made, it’s possible to sink all the budget in a single, impressive set and then find multiple uses for it. Here, the white plastic cell and its control room are striking enough to carry the picture even as the drama hinges on mechanical reversals and somewhat guessable turns which put each of the main characters on the spot (or in the room) as required. Macdonald (The Descent, Jetsam, Howl), always an impressively physical performer, twists herself into knots, showing a determined streak which would suit as villain as much as a victim, while Fehr adds to his catalogue of charismatic, persuasive terrorists and visionaries with a suave, creepy-charming presence.