Exam review (Blu-ray)

A claustrophobic and agonisingly tense closed-room thriller, Exam is both 2010 relevant, and ultimately surprisingly feel-good – after all, none of us is likely to experience a job interview quite as horrific as the one in this film. Are we?

Hazeldine’s debut directorial effort begins with eight youngish suits arriving to sit the ultimate test – an exam to discern the best candidate for a coveted business role. The sinister invigilator, played by a grim-faced Colin Salmon appears briefly to give the hopefuls a set of very particular examination rules, whilst also giving the viewer the indication that this is no ordinary job selection process.  The fun really starts though as, whilst the catatonic armed guard watches on, the examinees turn over their papers to reveal blank question sheets. The rest of the film centres around the diverse group of would-be-employees desperately trying to solve the dizzying puzzle in the 80 minutes of real-time, whilst really getting on each other’s nerves. Think The Apprentice meets the Saw franchise, and you’ll be somewhere close.

The most successfully disturbing aspect of the film is what we don’t see – we’re made aware of the global spread of a deadly virus in the vain of 28 Days Later, (and with, albeit unintentional, echoes of the recent swine flu pandemic), and we’re left to conjure our own images of the possible panic and despair occurring outside of the examination room. This looming narrative aspect is artfully heightened by the fact that we never see daylight, rather various forms of oppressive and unnatural lighting.  This deadly sub-plot also conveniently manages to sustain the credibility of the characters’ exaggerated ruthlessness, as in a normal setting the terrorized interviewees would surely have declared “bugger this. I’m heading back to the job centre” at the first incongruous whiff of urine in the examination room.

What’s sure to disappoint some viewers is the lack of gore; this film is touted as a psychological thriller, yet occasionally falls down at the psychologically thrilling aspects too. A scene involving a piece of paper and a thigh is weak and unconvincing but we can see what they were trying to do, and whilst Luke Mably’s White is a believable wide-boy and all round arse-hole he doesn’t really stand up as the villain of the piece.

The film eventually wins out by its ingenuity and the ‘why hasn’t someone thought of this before’ premise; it is flawed – the acting and script aren’t always strong enough for an intense single-location drama, and parts of the ending are just a little too contrived ? yet the film does reflect the terror of job interviews and exams, as well as alluding to the cut-throat corporate world, in a masterfully comic way.  It’s worth a watch, and particularly so for all you recent graduates out there.

EXTRAS ★★★ An audio commentary with director Hazeldine and editor Mark Talbot-Butler; behind the scenes footage; interviews with Hazeldine, producer Gareth Unwin and director of photography Tim Wooster; a photo gallery.

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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