Jarvis Dolan (Eddie Marsan), London-based co-host of an argumentative radio phone-in show called The Grim Realities, has to rely on his mouth and brain – and other, more physical resources – to get through a tough evening’s live broadcast in this contrived but effective suspense drama. It opens with some ass-covering waffle from a media magnate (Anthony Head) spooked by Jarvis’ recent brush with ‘fascists’ who’ve beaten him up and torched his car (apparently for his James O’Brien-style stance on Brexit) while his on-air partner Andrew Wilde (Paul Anderson) thinks that the politics is turning listeners off – or getting listeners to turn off – and they should concentrate on celebrity misdeeds. Then, in a suspiciously understaffed studio, Jarvis is faced with ‘technical difficulties’ – a soon-forgotten fake mcguffin (a recording he’s been warned not to play on air) doesn’t go out, the heat goes up in the studio, and a couple of masked goons – one is Richard Brake, an actor recognisable even through latex, the other is Oliver Coopersmith – hold producer Anthony (Alexis Rodney) and assistant Claire (Ivana Baquero – the little girl from Pan’s Labyrinth) hostage, taking over the show for reasons which become apparent when they brutally prevail on Jarvis to ask Andrew pointed questions about an incident in Belfast some years earlier.
We’ve had on-air sieges before – in the underrated Kings and Desperate Men, the finale of Talk Radio and, of course, Alan Partridge Alpha Papa – and this works that vein effectively, even as it also picks at scabs about celebrity misdeeds, ruthless careerism, revenge and #metoo in a manner that reminded me of Richard Linklater’s (also underrated) Tape. Marsan is one of the great supporting actors of the current generation but here he siezes a rare lead role and runs (or squirms) with it, mercurially switching from terrified to cunning to reasonable to demented as the plot springs several reversals on him (and us). It begins with masked menace and physical injury – the invaders have brought an acetylene torch and a sledgehammer along with a shotgun and a taser – but the long game isn’t so simple, with differences of preferred outcome among the apparent maniacs giving the sly Jarvis openings to use his mastery of interview techniques to drive wedges between them. The mechanics of it all don’t really stand up, but it has a theatrical flair that means you can set aside the plot conveniences. It’s the sort of plot that lets you guess some of its turns, but not all of them – as Jarvis’s constant attempts to de-escalate cut against audience expectations that a story like this has to end with a righteous or horrific bloodbath and enough corpses to litter the stage at the end of a Jacobean play.
Aside from establishing shots, it was made in Spain with an impressive (and convincing) depiction of a London radio studio, with asbestos-littered crawlspaces behind soundproofed walls and padded chill-out spaces. Directed by Pedro C. Alonso, who co-wrote with Alberto Marini.