Wednesday 26 October 2011

Not to be sniffled at: "Contagion"

Just as there are those who like snow for the manner in which it makes the world look as absurd to others as it does to them on a daily basis, so there must be germophobes who actively relish the biological thriller - think Outbreak, or Panic in the Streets, if you're of a particular vintage - that makes its audience think anew about covering their mouths the next time they have reason to cough on public transport. Steven Soderbergh's Contagion charts the epidemic that spreads across America, and eventually the world, after a businesswoman (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns from Kowloon with a little extra in her carry-on. What she thinks is just a bad case of jet lag ends with her being rushed to hospital with a suspected case of encephalitis; next thing you know, she's a goner, laid out on the mortician's slab with her scalp pulled back over her own face. "Should I call anyone?," asks the mortician's assistant of his boss, observing brains that have well and truly gone to goo. "Call everyone," comes the somewhat spooked response.

Outbreak, to take the film's immediate precedent, was couched in the terms of the studio action-thriller, full of med-evac helicopters and men in protective suits chasing after rogue monkeys. (Frankly, it couldn't lose.) In Contagion, it's more a matter of dumb luck who lives and dies (tellingly, it opens in a Kowloon casino, and ends with a lottery for antiviral vaccines), and Soderbergh and his regular writer Scott Z. Burns (The Informant!) incline towards a procedural approach to epidemiology: in a film of particularly shrewd casting, CSI graduate Laurence Fishburne is exactly the kind of calm, unflappable figurehead we might want heading up the official response to any such outbreak.

As in that TV juggernaut, the script is a mix of heavy jargon with the odd line that cuts through any obfuscation and makes it all make sense in layman's terms: Jennifer Ehle's biochemist is close to the money as to the outbreak's source when she posits that "somewhere in the world, the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat". What's thrilling here isn't the outbreak per se, but the way the disease is chased up, nailed down, cornered and quarantined - it's a manhunt with germs, and while Contagion maybe lacks the vicarious thrills of watching chaos play out (part of Outbreak's remit, no doubt), the tale it spins is greatly more human because of it, throwing the focus back on those individuals doing their darnedest to raise mankind's odds of survival.

Soderbergh is smart enough to get his stars to downplay their usual high-wattage glamour, so that it seems credible that Marion Cotillard should be working for the World Health Organisation and that Kate Winslet should be employed as a doctor - and, more importantly to the narrative, that the latter should herself fall sick with the bug, and end up quarantined in the same ice-hockey arena she'd sourced as a holding venue for the afflicted not days before. Everyone on screen - and there's appreciable wit in Soderbergh's casting of Demetri Martin as a biolab wonk and Elliott Gould as a virologist - seems mortal, rather than one of the movie gods: in Paltrow's case, it's another instance of how the actress has come to liven up her star persona no end over the past decade, and in the Winslet instance, a wryly ironic case of physician, heal thyself.

Shooting under his cinematographer pseudonym Peter Andrews, Soderbergh gives the whole a suitably sickly, yellow-green pallor - even the Warner Bros. logo at the start looks somewhat peaky - and makes us more than usually aware of the contact we have with such material objects as doorknobs, glasses and handrails. All this is fun, yet the attempt to develop this theme of transmission is where Contagion is at its least convincing. Jude Law has been crowbarred in, under a pretext of topicality, as an Australian blogger with crummy teeth, a crummy name and a crummy reputation, who sparks rioting by publishing unconfirmed rumours of a possible cure - both a character reflective of Hollywood's own fears about the digital media, and an assertion that only those with the proper dental care should be allowed into positions of social responsibility.

There's also something more than a little dubious in the way Burns's Patient Zero should be a faithless wife; the plague drama has been a conservative form ever since the Old Testament, but sometimes Contagion's moral really does appear to be don't cheat on a decent, all-American sort like Matt Damon if you don't want to bring God's vengeance crashing down on you. Still, Soderbergh has appeared drained in recent years, either by the demands of big-budget franchise-spinning (the Ocean's series) or by hollow exercises in indie style (The Girlfriend Experience), and it's good to have some of his rigour and cool intelligence back on our screens: Contagion is smart, insinuating mainstream entertainment, perfectly timed to mark the onset of those seasonal, we've-just-turned-the-heating-back-on sniffles.

Contagion is in cinemas nationwide.

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