Some films cast very long shadows – not a month goes by without a new movie riffing on Psycho, The Exorcist, Jaws or Night of the Living Dead. Less often lumped in with those is Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, and yet there remains a proliferation of what I saw a female critic recently label ‘bitch be crazy’ films heavily influenced by Roman Polanski’s film – this collaboration between director Adrian Shergold and star Antonia Campbell-Hughes, who co-wrote the script, explicitly evokes Repulsion as a flatmate sister runs off to Belgium (where the sisters in Repulsion came from) for a weekend, leaving the fragile protagonist alone with her demons – and perhaps with genuine threats against her. Cordelia (Campbell-Hughes) even talks French on the phone to her never-seen stepmother.
Here, the trauma is different – in the opening sequence, Cordelia gives up her seat on the tube to a blind passenger and then idly makes her way through a crowded carriage. Only later do we learn that this was 7/7 and her random act of kindness saved her life at the expense of the guy she was trying to help – and understand why her psyche shattered and she can’t put everything back together. Her more outgoing twin sister Caroline (also Campbell-Hughes) is slightly distant and subtly fed up with Cordelia not getting better, and we pick up on microaggressions all around that make Cordelia feel threatened … from Caroline’s boyfriend (Joel Fry) smoking in the flat to the phone calls that come to their retro landline from a heavy-breather.
While Caroline is off on her jaunt, Cordelia is approached by the cello-playing upstairs neighbour, Frank (Johnny Flynn), who is charming but slightly creepy and has his own damage. When Cordelia finds creeper photos of her on his phone, she forces him to admit he fancies her – but then she points out he didn’t know they were two different women. Frank unwittingly gets Cordelia on a tube for the first time in an age and she manages almost without a panic attack, then starts wooing her – though not without ominous touches like having to skip out of a bar to avoid someone he owes money to, and the gradual evidence that he might be the phone-calling stalker (here, the film veers into Midnight Lace territory for a while). It’s on a knife-edge as to who is the more dangerous of the main characters – Cordelia might be deluded, but the film shares her delusions (she sees the ghost of the blind guy, so not everything onscreen is actually there – which she underlines by photographing the empty chair where she sees the solid spectre), and Frank manages to be sinister even in his wounded posh boy nice bloke persona before the clues start dropping.
It has weird touches – like an intrusive Michael Gambon cameo as a neighbour wittering on about mice and rats – and a puzzling yet perfect stretch as Cordelia takes a trip home to bury a cat that has come to an ambiguous bad end, but finds no one home. Campbell-Hughes and Flynn are both excellent (her twice), and the flat – at once enviably situated and haunted by vermin, ghosts, pesky neighbours and formless terror (the other flats in the building are dilapidated) – a suitably unsettling cage for Cordelia. Some of it feels too on-the-nose (the 7/7 angle doesn’t quite gel) but it’s got a pleasing modern Britain vibe which resonates with a few other recent films (The Beast, Daphne, Kaleidoscope) about the traps we’re locking ourselves into.