Directed by Adrian Shergold.
Starring Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Johnny Flynn, Joel Fry, Catherine McCormack, Alun Armstrong and Michael Gambon.
A woman suffering from trauma is left alone in her flat by her twin sister and unravels during the course of a burgeoning relationship with her mysterious upstairs neighbour.
Most of the new British movie Cordelia features the trauma-afflicted title character – played by co-writer Antonia Campbell-Hughes – alone in her green-wallpapered apartment, trembling at noises from outside. Her only respite is a burgeoning relationship with her charming neighbour, played by Johnny Flynn. All of the constituent parts are there for a slightly spooky period piece, so much so that half the internet thought that was exactly what it was when the first poster was unveiled.
But that’s not what this movie is at all. Cordelia is an ambiguous and often fascinating psycho-thriller set in modern day London. The strange, olive-hued flat where the characters live is like entering a time warp, for sure, but this is very much a movie about today. Cordelia is a woman still dealing from the fallout from a major, traumatic event, heavily implied to be the 7/7 London bombings. Her twin sister Caroline (also played by Campbell-Hughes) leaves for the weekend with her boyfriend (Joel Fry), leaving her alone. Cordelia becomes increasingly paranoid about noises in and around the flat, finding solace in neighbour Frank (Flynn).
Cordelia unfolds as an elegantly strange movie, depicting the weirdness lurking behind the cramped apartments and anonymous buildings of central London. Inside, the oppressive green walls close in and are so dimly lit it could be 1800, but outside it’s unmistakably the vibrant colours and lights of the 21st century. Director Adrian Shergold focuses on knocking the audience off balance, constructing a world in which everything is certain – even the time period.
The first half of the movie is an exploration of Cordelia and her mental state, following Campbell-Hughes closely as she carries out her work as a West End understudy and struggles with stepping back out into the world. After a handful of almost romcom-esque “meet-cute” scenes with Flynn – there’s even a slapstick moment in which he chases his cello down the steps at Covent Garden Tube Station – the movie pivots into a strange, psycho-sexual power play between the two characters. It seems clear that either one or both of them is concocting some grand deceit, but which?
Both performers imbue their characters with ambiguity, but crucially never lose sight of the humanity behind that puzzle. This isn’t a Christopher Nolan adventure in which people are puzzles to be solved; it’s the story of two deeply flawed and fractured people trying to overcome their difficulties in order to function in the modern world. Their flats – the same bizarre relics of the past that they believe keep them safe from the outside – are actually keeping them secluded, forming a crucible for their worst impulses to crystallise and grow.
It’s not necessarily clear what the ultimate goal is with Cordelia. The wilder impulses of its third act lead to a final movement that feels more like a procession of random vignettes than a coherent finale to the story. There are certainly multiple interpretations available to the viewer, but it’s equally likely that they’ll leave concluding it’s not really about anything at all. A slightly more objective conclusion might have served it well, given the delectable ambiguity in which it trades for so long.
But broadly, Cordelia is a fascinating film and one mounted with real flair, both in its unique sense of design and the nimble way it teases out a refreshingly inscrutable dynamic between its two leads. It might not tie up all of its loose ends neatly in the final act and it’s possible to become a little weary of its opaque storytelling but, when the credits roll, it certainly leaves you with plenty to talk about.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.