Vivarium Movie Review
Written by Rachel Knightley
Released by Vertigo Pictures
Directed by Lorcan Finnegan
Written by Lorcan Finnegan and Garret Shanley
2019, 97 minutes, Rated 15 (UK)
Released on 27th March 2020
Jesse Eisenberg as Tom
Imogen Poots as Gemma
Jonathan Aris as Martin
Olga Wehrly as Young Woman
A beautifully nightmarish science fiction thriller from director Lorcan Finnegan, written with Garrett Shanley, with art direction by Robert Barrett and cinematography by Macgregor. From cast chemistry to art direction, there is a compelling visual signature here, full of individuality with genuine warmth, humour as well as more than decent scares. Exquisite visuals are supported by music from Kristian Eidnes Andersen creating a real sense of a world with its own voice and its own secrets.
Primary school teacher Gemma (Imogen Poots) and her boyfriend Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) who works on her school grounds are an unselfconsciously happy couple, looking for their first home. The estate agent, Martin (a star turn from Jonathan Aris in astoundingly short screen time for the punch the performance packs), who persuades them to follow him in their car for a visit to Yonder, a development of identically perfect houses in identically perfect streets. It’s spacious, but too perfect, too empty and too eerie, from the identical clouds to the picture of the house itself in a frame on its own wall. Having decided it’s not for them, Gemma and Tom realise the estate agent’s car has gone…
The slow drip into despair as Gemma and Tom drive and drive Yonder’s inescapable routes, trying to get home, is all the more powerful for the touching emotional reality of Poots and Eisenberg’s believable relationship under strain. The tiny, irritating things that would never matter in a normal society but are going to matter when they become (literally) the only other person in each other’s world are as moving as the situation is threatening. Totally exhausted, as night falls and they return again to the same house, they admit defeat enough to sleep there and begin the escape plan the next day. But every attempt is a circle back to the same house, with food and then a baby being dropped off by whatever power has put them in this empty zoo. Senan Jennings as the boy the baby grows into in a number of days is a treat as their monstrous charge, giving a nuanced and even touching quality to this otherworldly monster (who grows into Eanna Hardwicke, silent and assured and terrifyingly unmovable).
Confident and assured storytelling right from the pre-title footage of the baby cuckoo pushing baby birds out of the nest, this is a story whose clear imagery and narrative doesn’t need to draw attention to itself to shock and enthral. A sense of humour and curiosity pervades this film, a darkness all the stronger for the bright Teletubby-esque visuals, which combine the obvious Twilight Zone parallels with the psychological domestic noir of Pleasantville and American Beauty. But where characters in comparable stories are battling between emotional truth and the performance of a perfect life, here there are no Joneses to keep up with and the focus turns inward with no escape from each other as well as the world around them. A very successful sense of investment is created in the couple and their attempt to escape.
If there is a weak point, it is only the ‘because sometimes nature is cruel/that’s the way it is’ talk Gemma gives her student who discovers the dead birds in the first scene. A deliberately thin response both to her student’s legitimate question and, perhaps to the questions we might be left with about the plot itself, is dangerously knowing. But that’s really the only crack in the paint, and even with a somewhat overly long final act it eventually achieves a generous enough payoff to forgive and forget. Visually unforgettable, confident and sleek with it with a sound design as assured as the art direction, the knowledge that “home” has always been each other has us walking out with a surprisingly warm message from this cold world.
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