Cambridge Film Festival Review: Contagion

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The Pitch: Outbreak 2: Infectious Boogaloo.

The Review: Fear of infections is a fairly modern phenomena. While great crime dramas or romantic comedies have been the subject of movies for decades, our fear of disease in our anti-bacterial, post-MRSA world is only now really starting to provide fodder for the great and the good of Hollywood. (Maybe that great unmade Black Death movie is still out there somewhere). But after three decades of disaster movies laying waste to everything in sight, audiences expect certain things from their movies, and in those respects Steven Soderbergh’s latest delivers – up to a point.

In any disaster movie, the first thing you want to see is a high class array of talent being put in jeopardy. If there’s one thing Soderbergh does well, it’s put a cast together, and he’s obviously given the Filofax a good thumbing before the cameras rolled. As soon as the credits roll, Gwynneth Paltrow appears on screen and she’s the first in a long succession of famous and familiar faces who appear, then start coughing and looking a bit pasty and sweaty. It would take most of this review to list the ones who do well, although Paltrow does get killed off before she has chance to do any damage, but by and large the acting falls into two categories: being asked to cough and splutter before an inevitable bout of death (or, in the case of Matt Damon, standing around while other people do that), or to stand in a room looking at computer screens or a conference table surrounded by stern looking, smartly dressed men while delivering reams of medical exposition about infection rates and worst case scenarios, and everyone does that as well as you’d expect.

The alternating between coughing and general sternness is edited together at a fair lick. Regular Soderbergh contributor and Oscar winner Stephen Mirrione never lets the pace flag, with scenes finely trimmed and the scenario and the constant threat being used to generate mood. The mood itself is very tense, starting uneasily and steadily building as events escalate and the authorities struggle to keep pace with the spread of the infection. If anything, it feels a little too trimmed, and occasionally scenes that need time to breathe or resonate get lost a little as the general pace sweeps along everything in its path. The other obstacle that Contagion has to overcome is Jude Law, who appears to have been taking lessons at the “Physical Impairment and Dodgy Accent” school of acting, his performance consisting of a dodgy tooth and a dodgier accent. If you manage to work out whether his accent is Australian or Cockney, please do let me know.

Contagion has a lot it’s trying to say, about the potential of such a situation, and of how everyone from governments to pharmaceutical companies would react in such a scenario. Consequently it’s not surprise that the pacy editing and the huge number of different narrative threads mean that a few ideas feel a little underdeveloped; some characters disappear for long stretches, and their reappearance often leaves you wondering what they’ve been up to in the interim. The overriding feeling is one of frustration, as while what’s here is great, and will give you chills every time the person next to you starts scratching their head, Contagion feels as if it would have been more effective as a six hour miniseries than the hour and forty-five minutes that is actually presented. The final disappointment comes in the ending, as it feels as if a few punches have been pulled and we get to see an ending that’s already been spelled out in the exposition earlier, like a whodunnit where a signed confession is found halfway through but everyone keeps investigating, just in case. Still, Contagion will get under your skin, even if it won’t leave a lasting impression.

Why see it at the cinema: The crisp digital visuals are definitely best suited to the cinema, but the USP of Contagion is that your paranoia will increase markedly as soon as someone on the other side of the cinema starts coughing. You just don’t get that at home.

The Score: 7/10

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