Johannes Kuhnke, Charlotte Salt, James McArdle
The claustrophobic story of four characters trapped in a submersible vessel is a bold move for a feature directorial debut. While it’s a choice that affords writer-director Ben Parker control over his location, it’s also one that offers him little flexibility—trapped on his own claustrophobic stage with his small ensemble cast.
A further bold move is the film’s gamble on suspense alone, offsetting Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) and Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957)—two masterpieces of suspenseful and claustrophobic drama. While Lifeboat confronts the subject of justice and the humane amidst paranoia and fear of the ‘other’ in wartime, Lumet’s jury drama looks to the themes of justice and social responsibility.
Meanwhile, Chris Crow’s recent spatially restricted psychological-drama, The Lighthouse, ruminates on how the identity of our world is one shaped through human perspective. If Hitchcock, Lumet and Crow respectively underpin their technical exercises with ideas, Parker positions himself to succeed or fail on the merit of the former alone.
The Chamber struggles in its opening scenes, weighed down with expositional dialogue that aims to establish Mats’ (Johannes Kuhnke) reluctant yet dutiful relationship to his vessel. It’s a reflection of human sentimentality for the non-human. From Star Trek’s Scotty to Star Wars’ Han Solo, Mats’ affection towards his rust bucket has similar shades of good humour that serves the film well. Yet fulfilling the purpose to connect us with Mats while also establishing the ambiguous mission into North Korean waters, the opening is one Parker is forced to recover from rather than to build upon.
Throughout there’s an uneasy friction between dialogue and performance. The naturalism found in the human moments of the drama lacking in others, particularly Edwards’ (Charlotte Salt) authoritarian stances. Here the naturalism is replaced by a heightened theatricality, echoing the rigid dialogue and onscreen presence of John Wayne in his war roles. If Parker is looking for a rawness to emphasise the rigidity of the military identity versus human frailty and emotion, then he’s successful. Although whether Parker should have followed Hitchcock’s advice to enter the story at the last possible minute and lose the weak opening is a criticism that haunts the film, regardless.
If there’s an air of predictability that permeates The Chamber, it only adds to the overall enjoyment. Yet there’s a subtle skill in Parker’s execution, avoiding the extremes of his characters to create a conflict in his audience. Parks (James McArdle) is not a one-dimensional antagonist because in spite of his volatility, his fear and reactions strike us as reasonable. If Edwards is governed by her military instincts, then Parks is governed by his survival instinct. Unlike a traditional antagonist we understand his point of view and anger, while we silently question how we should feel about Edwards. Parker shows a willingness to conform, yet also shows that he’s not afraid to play around with archetypes and audience expectations.
The Chamber is the filmic equivalent of a fairground ride, the stimulation of emotion over ideas. Yet in as far as it’s a successful technical exercise, it’s also a spirited film capable of enduring. Not only is the drama and suspense sustained within its running time, but it does so across a repeat viewing, allowing for a deeper appreciation of the character moments. It’s here in revealing another side to itself that the success of Parker’s bold debut is best appreciated.
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