Friday 18 November 2016

In a lonely place: "Panic"

The brooding Brit thriller Panic begins in a place most freelance journos will surely recognise, with a hack hero sat in his North London highrise flat and becoming increasingly distracted from his heavyhitting 1,000-word piece on politics in music by the world outside his window. More specifically: by a growing fascination with the young Chinese woman who lives in the apartment across the way. It's clear from the off that Andrew (David Gyasi) is a born observer, detached in that way journalists are often accused of being, yet there's a yearning and a loneliness in his watching that sets up Sean Spencer's film as another of the 21st century Rear Window variants. There are twists on the basic template, for all that: it's not Andrew but the married gallery owner he occasionally hooks up with who spies the object of his attentions being carried off by thugs; and our hero is hobbled not by anything so old-school as a broken leg, but very contemporary panic attacks that make it hard for him to leave his apartment. His subsequent reaching out in the direction of the woman's disappearance is a bid for reconnection with a world he feels disconnected from; and yet - in true noir style - this intervention will only further underline his essential isolation.

As this cherchez la femme narrative unfolds, Panic catches a troubling mood specific to city dwellers, namely that you might be simultaneously alone and yet caught up in some vast conspiracy or power game you cannot possibly fathom out. Spencer has two major assets in this regard. Carl Burke's shadowy, nocturnal photography again underlines just how well our filmmakers are now shooting London (and an idea of London): here is a recognisably cold, hard, lonely place, where cramped and antiseptic living spaces are dwarfed by spooky corporate towers, separated by soot-stained back avenues that somehow haven't fallen subject to the inevitable regeneration; a nexus into which a man or woman might well disappear. We are, nevertheless, drawn in by Gyasi's tersely expressive performance, with its inbuilt sense of helplessness whenever darkness falls. (Spencer appears alert indeed to the irony of casting a black British actor as an agonised white knight.) Several blocks removed from the average Lahndan crime caper, the film is low-key, minimal - finally closer to neo-noir like Night Moves (in either its Penn or Reichardt iterations) than the jovial-jokey Hitch, which perhaps explains the tentative release strategy, two years after completion, without the advance fanfare of a press screening. (You'll have to seek Panic out down one of those same backstreets.) Yet it's carefully sustained and insinuating: a calling-card feature that seizes the attention with minimum fuss, before sliding right under the skin.

Panic opens in selected cinemas from today.  

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