Reviewed by Gareth Jones
Starring Luke Mably, Adar Beck, Nathalie Cox, Chukwudi Iwuji
Directed by Stuart Hazeldine
Distributed by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Writer/director Stuart Hazeldine’s debut feature, Exam, sees a group of eight candidates placed together in a mysterious room to sit the final stage of the selection process for a job within a mysterious, unnamed organisation. As the film opens, the Invigilator (an all-business Colin Salmon), advises our subjects that there is only one question, and one answer is required of them. After explaining the rest of the exam rules, he departs, leaving our group with only each other, their exam sheets, a silent, stoic armed guard, and a ticking clock for company.
When the sheets are revealed to be completely blank save for the candidates’ numbers, Exam takes us on a claustrophobic descent as the group work together to figure out what exactly the question is and secretly devise how they can ultimately beat everyone else to the job.
Hazeldine’s film echoes many successful flicks such as Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs with the characters referring to each other only by characteristics (here we have White, Brown, Black, Dark, Blonde, Deaf, Chinese and Brunette) and the claustrophobia, teamwork and reactive rooms of Cube. As soon as the countdown starts, Exam bleeds tension and will keep you guessing, as it does its characters, just what the hell the question and answer may be. The ending reveal is pleasant and organic, echoing the brilliant should-have-seen-it-coming finale of the original Saw (if a little less refined).
Running in real-time once the exam itself begins, Hazeldine keeps a close eye on pacing and manages to squeeze in quite a lot of action as the budding employees do everything they can think of to make the room itself reveal what may be hidden on their papers. Of course, in a true reflection of the Nietzschean abyss, the frustrating emptiness of the sheets leads to revelations, desperation and violence.
The cast all perform well in their roles (Colin Salmon is always reliable and pleasant to watch); however, a few of the characters have little to offer the proceedings. The head of the show here is Luke Mably’s big-city wide-boy White. His character sports the most dialogue and the most devious actions – going from a character you’ll laugh at, go along with, dislike, feel sorry for and ultimately loathe. It’s a pity that very few of the others are given quite as much depth.
If you’re after a real shocker or extreme violence, Exam is not the film you’re looking for. Violence is scarce and sporadic, but it’s a credit to Hazeldine that the few scenes involving bodily harm are almost unbearably tense and toe-curling. This is an exercise in tension and mystery, not shock (or, for that matter, schlock).
The film does slow down somewhat during the second act and becomes a little too talky. Less attentive viewers may find their patience tested during this segment, but thankfully with minimal effort the latter stages are worth waiting for. A science-fiction aspect to the film feels slightly shoehorned in, taking things perhaps a little too far into incredulous territory at the denouement, but overall Exam is a success. If you enjoyed the original Cube, you’ll feel right at home sitting down to this one.
The video and audio presentation on Sony’s Blu-ray release is, as one would expect, fantastic with very, very little to complain about. The image is sharp and focused throughout, even with the many colour changes the room goes through, and the vibrating bass prevalent throughout most of the film works well in building the sense of unease.
The suite of special features isn’t too bad, but not exceptional. A few short interviews have the director, producer, director of photography and main cast members all discussing what brought them to the project and facets of creating the final product. The “behind-the-scenes” segment is quite disappointing, running approximately six minutes and only showing the basic creation of a couple of shots.
The photo gallery and trailer are…well…a photo gallery and trailer.
The centrepiece here is the audio commentary with Hazeldine and editor Mark Talbot-Butler. It’s a listenable, but not entirely engaging track. You’d be forgiven for letting your attention wander during it, though Hazeldine does give quite a few interesting insights into his intentions with the flick and how he feels about the problems it has (for example the aforementioned talkiness). A lack of quiet time helps keep things moving, but overall, as with quite a few commentaries, it’s a welcome addition though by no means a must-listen.
3 1/2 out of 5
2 1/2 out of 5
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