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Film of the week - Invisible Man: The must-see horror of 2020

Elisabeth Moss shines in an excellent reimagining of H.G. Wells’ classic story, writes Paul Whitington

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Elisabeth Moss carries the film by fighting off her estranged husband Oliver Jackson-Cohen who becomes invisible

Elisabeth Moss carries the film by fighting off her estranged husband Oliver Jackson-Cohen who becomes invisible

Elisabeth Moss carries the film by fighting off her estranged husband Oliver Jackson-Cohen who becomes invisible

When H.G. Wells was 15, he broke his leg and was confined to bed. With no TVs or smartphones to distract him, the bored young man began to read, and soon moved from the adventure novels of Daniel Defoe to the grand philosophical treatises of Thomas More and Plato. A story from the Republic stuck with him, an ancient legend about a ring that had the power to make a man invisible, a state that, as Plato noted, would allow a person to behave with impunity, and "go about among men with the powers of a god".

In 1897, that vague idea found concrete form in The Invisible Man, a slim but ingenious volume that grounded a fantastical notion in the banal, the everyday. When Griffin, a crackpot inventor, succeeds in making himself disappear, a world of nefarious possibilities yawn before him. Feeling himself unleashed from all social and human constraints, he goes mad and embarks on a reign of terror that ends only with his death. It was a fantastic idea, simple and unsettling, and many filmmakers have been inspired by it.

James Whale's 1933 version stuck closely to its source and starred a suitably demented Claude Rains as Griffin. But over the years, in various sequels, the original idea has been cheapened, muddied. In a 1970s TV show, the invisible man was even recast as an insipid goodie! No such problems with this remake, written and directed by Leigh Whannell. The Australian film-maker made his name on the Saw franchise, but nobody's perfect, and his subsequent work on the Insidious trilogy has shown flashes of real imagination. His talents are on full display in The Invisible Man, which brilliantly updates Wells' story and situates it on the fringes of Silicon Valley.

In a superb opening sequence, a young woman wakes in the dead of night and sneaks away from the bed on which her male partner lies sleeping. As the ocean roars outside, she creeps through the ultra-modern home, dressing silently and doing her best to avoid a hi-tech security system. As she's leaving, she sets off an alarm, flees through a forest and jumps into a waiting car.

She is Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), wife of billionaire inventor Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a controlling, abusive maniac who has made her life a misery. Her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) has helped her escape, and Cecilia finds shelter in the San Francisco home of James (Aldis Hodge), a cop, and childhood friend. Shortly after her flight, Cecilia is summoned to the law offices of Griffin's brother, Tom (Michael Dorman), who tells her that Adrian has committed suicide and she will now inherit his fortune.

Things are looking up then, but Cecilia instinctively feels that something's not right. When she's alone in the house, she gets the odd sensation that someone is behind her: household objects begin to move around of their own accord, and when Emily accuses her of sending a very hurtful email, Cecilia becomes convinced that Adrian is alive and has somehow made himself invisible.

He has of course (the clue is in the title), and finds ingenious ways of making Cecilia's life unbearable. The science behind his invisibility is nicely fudged, its consequences wittily presented, but Leigh Whannell has achieved something far cleverer than that here.

By making Cecilia the main character, rather than the lunatic who's tormenting her, Whannell has entirely changed the story's focus, and turned it into a very effective Hitchcockian thriller. One thinks constantly of Gaslight, the 1944 George Cukor film in which Ingrid Bergman's oily husband slowly convinced her she's going insane.

The trick here of course is that Cecilia has nowhere to hide, no way of convincing anyone else what's going on. Even the home where she's sought sanctuary becomes a chamber of horrors, and time and again she stares hard at a seemingly empty corner of the room wondering, is he there? Whannell executes a series of breathtaking horror set pieces, and amuses almost as much as he terrifies. Most impressive of all is the way he paces his story, expertly drawing out the tension and revealing only as much as he needs to.

Elisabeth Moss, who is excellent in everything, suffers with rare eloquence. In this film she must often do so alone, fighting with shadows, talking at empty walls. She carries a film that doesn't need carrying, commanding our empathy as she prepares to fight back.

The Invisible Man (16, 125mins) - 4 stars

Films coming soon...

Onward (Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Octavia Spencer); Military Wives (Sharon Horgan, Kristen Scott-Thomas, Jason Flemyng); True History Of The Kelly Gang (George MacKay, Nicholas Hoult, Essie Davis, Russell Crowe); The Photograph (Issa Rae, Lakeith Stanfield) .

At the Movies: Your guide to all the week's new releases

Dark Waters (12A, 127mins) - 4 stars

Todd Haynes' impassioned conspiracy thriller is based on the true story of Rob Bilott, a Cincinnati lawyer who specialised in defending big chemical companies until a visit from a Virginian farmer changed his life forever. Wilbur Tennant is convinced the deaths of hundreds of his cattle are being caused by water contaminated by chemicals from a nearby DuPont factory, and Bilott's case against them and their PFOAs (the highly toxic, so-called forever chemicals) will become a decades-long battle for justice. This is a tightly made film, and Mark Ruffalo is excellent in the lead.

 

Downhill (15A, 86mins) - 3 stars

Some of you may remember Ruben Ostlund's superb 2014 drama Force Majeure: this remake stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell as Billie and Pete, an American couple who've come to Austria on a skiing holiday with their two sons. They're having lunch at an Alpine restaurant when an avalanche sends a wall of snow thundering down on them. Just before it hits, Pete grabs his phone and runs and afterwards, both react to this moral failure in very different ways. While not as good as the original, Downhill is amusing enough, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus gives the film some much needed emotional depth.

 

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (16, 120mins) - 5 stars

Celine Sciamma's subtly erotic period drama is nothing short of a masterpiece. Noémie Merlant is Marianne, a young painter who arrives on a remote Breton island at the end of the 18th century to fulfil a strange commission. A noblewoman (Valeria Golino) wants her to pretend to be a companion to her daughter, Heloise (Adèle Haenel), and paint her portrait without her knowing. It will be sent to Milan to be inspected by a man who may marry her. But as Marianne watches and works, she falls in love with the moody and elusive Heloise. Beautifully made, and oddly compelling, Sciamma's film is a rare and wonderful treat.

Irish Independent