Last year’s Edinburgh Film Festival saw the premiere of the psychological thriller Exam; the feature-length directorial debut of Stuart Hazeldine (a man best known for co-writing last year’s Knowing; the sci-fi/disaster movie starring Face/Off’s Nicholas Cage); which received it’s theatrical run earlier this year, and has been met with somewhat mixed reviews, despite earning Stu an Outstanding Debut, BAFTA nomination, for his writing and direction on the project.
The film itself has a rather simple concept; watching eight candidates (who’ve already passed several selection stages) sit their final interview/exam, for a very highly sought after job vacancy; yet it’s a concept that’s extremely difficult to pull-off successfully, as it simply involves putting eight people in a room; with nothing but pencils, their exams papers, and a guard; and watching them try to pass the exam, in a real-time, 80 minute (1 hour 20 minute) long, test.
However, it becomes apparent, fairly soon, that this is no ordinary exam, as while the invigilator (Colin Salmon, Resident Evil) lays out the rules for those taking part (which include being disqualified for attempting to communicate with him or the guard, being disqualified for spoiling your own exam paper; on purpose or by accident; and being disqualified if you choose to leave the room for any reason) there is a sense that something isn’t quite right with the test; a sense that is confirmed (after he says that there is one question before them, and only one answer is required) when he starts the clock, and the candidates turn over their exams papers, only to reveal that they are completely blank.
Needless to say, they are all completely bewildered at that point, and, after realizing that passing the test will involve reading between the lines of the invigilators rules; and focussing on what he didn’t say, as much as what he did (he forbid the candidates to communicate with him or the guard, but didn’t mention talking amongst each other), rather than blindly obeying their immediate assumptions; begin their hunt for the question, and the answer that the invigilator is looking for.
This leads the candidates to assume that the question is somehow hidden on their paper, and try everything from using fire, various liquids, and alternate spectrums of light, to reveal it, all whilst learning personal details about each other, and the job they are applying for (as none of them know exactly what the position is, and few even know what company the job is with), and trying to outwit their competitors, and get them disqualified; something which leads to a large amount of tension, some backstabbing, and a number of life-threatening situations.
Situations which become more and more tense as the film goes on; because in the beginning, despite being confused, the candidates manage to cling to a sense of hopeful optimism, and work together to try and solve the problem, but after several ideas fail, candidates begin to get evicted, and everyone becomes painfully aware that the clock is still ticking down, the pressure rises, and the candidates come head-to-head with one another; elevating from inflicting simple snide remarks and emotional anguish, to actual beatings, torture, and threatening to kill one another in order to pass the test.
In essence, it’s a pretty simple film, but succeeds in maintaining interest through constantly escalating the situations, and slowly revealing facts about the corporation conducting the unusual interview, and the world in which the candidates live (the film is actually set a short while in the future, allowing for a fictional corporation to grow into having enough power to conduct the morally vacant experiment that the candidates find themselves in), as well as creating an interesting and unusual mystery for the viewers to try and solve; because anyone that watches the film will constantly be trying to outwit the interviewees, and figure the puzzle out ahead of time (just like watching Jonathan Creek), and like an episode of Jonathan Creek, the clues are all there from the beginning.
Aside from Colin Salmon as the invigilator (who does a fantastic job in his role), the cast includes Luke Mably (28 Days Later); as the most ruthless candidate, who’s willing to do anything to eliminate the competition; Jimi Mistry (best known for his small yet important roles in RocknRolla, and 2012); as the reserved gambler, carefully weighing up the situations before taking his chance; Chukwudi Iwuji (who wrote and starred in horror-short The Lane); as the moralistic, polar opposite of Mably’s character; Nathalie Cox (Clash of the Titans), and Pollyanna McIntosh (Land of the Lost); as two reserved female candidates; all of whom film their roles well enough, but fail to attain a level of complete believability (luke Mably comes closest, but still has something lacking from his performance, which feels just a little too extreme).
However, the direction is solid (as evident by Hazeldine’s BAFTA nomination), and the plot is intriguing, so whilst the performances might not reach the same standards of Michael Mann’s Heat, the climactic reveal might feel like a little bit of a let-down for some viewers (particularly those who have it sussed from the beginning), and the film’s low budget roots give it the overall feel of a BBC TV special, it’s still pretty engaging, fairly fun, and worth watching solely so you can try and solve the puzzle before the big reveal.
The 1080i transfer given to the Blu-ray edition of Exam, also adds to the overall TV special feeling; as whilst the level of detail may be very high at times (particularly during close-up shots), the contrast is decent enough, and the black levels are suitably deep, there are several instances of banding, and occasional blurring throughout the picture, as well as a small amount of pixelation visible.
Having said that, colour is well represented; the skin-tones of every character (which due to the differing cultures of the candidates, make for a few differences) are always natural looking, and several deep primaries that fill the screen, when the candidates affect the room’s lighting, all look natural and contrast well; and there is no aliasing or noticeable edge enhancement, but the quality does have a TV feel; as despite its many merits, it fails in comparison to most newer transfers (having a similar, or possibly lesser, level of quality to the recently released Blu-ray copy of Bad Boys; which is now 15 years old), and doesn’t even look as good as some of the BBC’s HD programming (such as the Top Gear: Polar Special).
While many retailers still list Exam as having a full DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack, it actually comes bundled with only two audio options; Dolby Digital 5.1, or Dolby Digital 2.0; and it’s clear when listening that it’s not high definition sound that is being delivered; as the Dolby Digital track lacks the clarity and crispness that a DTS-HD MA, or Dolby True-HD, track could have produced.
But despite not being HD, the soundtrack used works fairly well; the film’s score works well in providing a good deal of ambience, and often spreads around the soundstage, as do some other effects (a ticking clock, water, and a couple of other effects make use of the surround channels), and the fairly powerful (although not system testing) bass levels; but Exam is less of an all round effects piece, and more solidly dialogue based.
And being mostly dialogue based it’s a good thing that the dialogue sounds as good as it does; it’s always perfectly clear, easily intelligible, and completely natural sounding, as well as being well anchored in the center channel; and when it’s added to the small number of effects, the excellent score, and the accurate bass levels, it makes for a fairly enjoyable, and realistic sounding soundscape. It’s a shame that there wasn’t a HD audio option, but for a Dolby Digital track, Exam sounds very good, and suits the film, and it’s low budget roots.
The special features for Exam include a surprisingly interesting director’s commentary; where Stuart Hazeldine (who’s joined by editor Mark Talbot-Butler, Messiah) discusses everything from casting, filming, lighting effects, and deleted scenes, to the option of filming in HD, and the choice to stick with film, and the problems with seeing some of the shots appear on digital; some behind the scenes footage; which is largely a tedious waste of time, with the only highlight occurring when Colin Salmon makes a Matrix joke; a photo gallery, trailer, and interviews with the director of photography; discussing the film’s lighting; the cast; talking about their characters and the film as a whole; the director; who’s discusses some of the commentary information again, and how he got into directing, and through the filming process; and the producer; on why he chose this project.
At first glance, Exam appears to be fairly lacking in bonus material, however, while the trailer, photo gallery, and behind the scenes footage may be rather redundant, the director’s commentary, and the interviews with the cast an crew, provide a wealth of production information, and give plenty of background that should more than please the film’s fans, and prove to be a useful resource for anyone aiming to shoot a low budget movie.
The Bottom Line:
In the end, Exam is a curious little film, that’s bound to be forgotten fairly soon, but works very well when you’re watching it; anyone who watches is bound to get very drawn in; more because of trying to solve the puzzle and find the answer to the question, than as a result of the storytelling and actors performances (as they are fairly average, and don’t really stand-out at all), as it’s the puzzle, and the psychological element (realizing that the reactions of these characters to the various situations faced are ultimately very realistic, and wondering just how far people would go to get their ideal job) that really makes the film a success.
The picture quality is above average, but far from the stellar standard that many new Blu-rays exhibit, and the audio is disappointing in the fact that it is not a high-definition soundtrack (as was originally advertised), but sounds very realistic, and works exceptionally well for a standard digital track.
The special features appear to be lacking something at first glance, but are relatively fluff free, and contain a wealth of production information that is guaranteed to please the movie’s fans, and whilst the bonus material, picture and audio quality, combine to create a Blu-ray that is only just above average, the film itself is rather compelling during its first viewing (despite the obvious low budget roots, and TV special feel), but seriously lacking in replay value; meaning that it’s an interesting watch, but one to rent, rather than buy.