To follow in the footsteps of director Brian DePalma, as IN DARKNESS does, at least partially, is no easy balancing act. DePalma has long been lauded and condemned for his lurid approach to film-making. His images demand your attention, certainly. However, many feel they frequently leap over the line from exploitation to out and out misogyny.

The lead character’s blindness further complicates IN DARKNESS’s high wire walk. How does one tell a DePalma-esque caper without denigrating the lead for her visual limitations? On the other hand, play it too safe and the DePalma pastiche will mark the film as a cowardly simulacrum. So whatever did IN DARKNESS do?

IN DARKNESS: Nice shades
Natalie Dormer maneuvers London in IN DARKNESS (Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

The Idea Behind IN DARKNESS

IN DARKNESS does not shy away from its influences:  jumping right in as a sort of BLOW OUT/ WAIT UNTIL DARK love child.

Sofia (Natalie Dormer) plays piano as a part of a film score orchestra. When rehearsal ends, she is off navigating the streets of London with her white cane. Her quiet, small world, however, is repeatedly interrupted by her heiress upstairs neighbor Veronique (Emily Ratajkowski).

Veronique is seemingly hosting nightly screaming matches in a foreign language with someone. Then, one night, Veronique seemly leaps from her balcony and is killed upon impact with the ground.

Refusing to tell the police what she knows, Sofia hopes to just move past it. However, various parties—a detective, a securities company, Veronique’s dad, a possible war criminal—will not accept that she has no information. The more they try to find out what she knows, the harder Sofia pushes away. Before long, she’s diving into the underworld for the truth about her upstairs neighbor’s death.

Then, things get complicated.

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The Writing

Written by director Anthony Byrne and star Natalie Dormer, the script starts appropriately pulpy out of the gate. With a strong beginning, it quickly lays out the world and gets into the action. Tightly and tensely plotted, IN DARKNESS is the rare treat of a movie. It surprises you by not just surpassing but decimating expectations.

Unfortunately, it has higher ambitions that being a chewy piece of crime fiction. Its increasing complications eventually become too much and the script unravels in its final third. As soon as the film decides to add a heavy dose of THE DEBT to its already-reference-heavy, BLOW OUT-meets-WAIT UNTIL DARK stew, the script just cannot support it anymore. It does not get bad, per se, but plot mechanics shut down much of what made it fun and compelling.

The film does boast a bravura last twist which I remain mixed on but feels very DePalma. Alas, it cannot salvage the kind of thriller giddiness the movie had us looped up on.

IN DARKNESS: Breathe Rite Strips
In a scene from IN DARKNESS, Emily Ratajkowski gets distracted mid-conversation by impending doom (Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Casting The Lead of IN DARKNESS

I do not know Natalie Dormer from a lot of other projects, but I confess not expecting much from her. Call it an anti-GAME OF THRONES bias, perhaps.

I was wrong. Dormer proves quite good. The way she presents Sofia’s need for routine and normalcy acknowledges that difficulties of living blind in a big city. Sofia feels she must present as confident and comfortable in her world to be safe and she does just that. However, as small details of her day go awry—a tube train unable to reach her usual stop, a fall on the stairs — Dormer’s eyes register her rising frustration and possible panic. She is in control, but the deviations from routine unsettle her and Dormer reveals it with almost no fuss.

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Casting the Rest of the IN DARKNESS Call Sheet

Emily Ratajkowski, as the doomed Veronique, turns in probably her best performance on film to date. Her accent work is unexpectedly good, for one. For another, with brief time, she shows the Veronique people knew and the one she may be trying to become.

Joely Richardson is delightfully nasty as the head of a dirty security firm targeting Sofia. Like Dormer, she does a lot of inner acting with her eyes. Her voice, a purr of a poison honey, can’t hide her eyes giving away she feels out of control.

Ed Skrein as her brother Marc, on the other hand, can really only find one gear for his character. Vaguely pissed. It does not derail the movie, but it feels like a role calling for a nuanced performance.

Jan Bijvoet as Veronique’s father and possible former ethnic cleanser, is suitably slick. You can see why people would buy him as a philanthropist despite his history. Simultaneously, in our unique role as viewers, we also witness just how hollow he is.

IN DARKNESS: Tunnel Dwellers
Joely Richardson and Jan Bijvoet take a break from being scary to be creepy in IN DARKNESS (Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)


The movie confirms it has BLOW OUT on the brain from the jump. The opening scene mirrors OUT’s iconic opening scream take. IN DARKNESS wants you to know that it plans to be DePalma but slightly less exploitative.

Truth be told, for a long time, it does just that. Split screens (although organically split by doors, walls, etc). Blondes in danger. Shower scenes. Looping stairwell shots. Killers stalking victims just out of range of detection. All these DePalma calling cards make appearances. Given DePalma’s obsession with doing Hitchcock but dirtier, it makes sense that someday, another person would come along and try to do DePalma but with more realistic bloodshed and less—but certainly still plenty—female nudity.

However, in the same way that the script falls apart in the final third, so too does the direction. It becomes as though the complications of the story have proven too demanding for the director to maintain his style. What was once a very intriguing and stylized film devolves into workman-like box checking.


Striking the Set

I found a lot to love with IN DARKNESS. Its refusal to pretend it’s not in love with its predecessors is refreshing, especially as both Dormer—as writer-star—and Byrne—as  writer-director—prove they have the stuff to ape well without just feeling like a faded copy. The movie’s ability to thread the needle in making Dormer both competent hero of the piece and lust object is impressive. DePalma never really landed that move until FEMME FATALE, some nearly 30 years into his career. It is sexy—in both the sense of human attraction and well stylized film making—and hums along at a great pace.

Then, the final third introduces tragic childhoods, spies, more murder plots, grizzled ex-soldiers, genocidal atrocities, and more. It becomes all too much, especially that late in the game. For a movie that felt very crowded and very hemmed in, all this extra material blew out the space. It was meant to heighten the stakes but instead it made them feel generic and distant.

Nonetheless, a great 2/3 trumps a messy closing, at least for me in this case. I’d love to see Byrne and Dormer team up again to nail a gorgeous thriller — one that pulls from DePalma (and Hitchcock, de facto) while still offering some delicious newness. I think they have it in them if they can resist the urge to confuse simplicity with underdevelopment.

Natalie Dormer and Ed Skrein work the crowd in a scene from IN DARKNESS (Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

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