Thandie's unhappy holiday.
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Thandie Newton and Cillian Murphy are a married couple under strain
Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic produce a disproportionately large number of talented actors, most of whom end up based in London. One of the younger crop is Cillian Murphy. He came to international notice as the hero of Danny Boyle's 2003 sci-fi horror film 24 Days Later. Hollywood quickly realised that his wide-set blue eyes, pallor and disconcerting stare made him an excellent choice to play scary villains - which he then did in films like Batman Begins and Red Eye.
This week, Murphy is back as a hero in an intense, low-budget, no-computer-effects thriller with sci-fi overtones called Retreat. He stars alongside Thandie Newton and Jamie Bell, who came to fame in Billy Elliot and has turned out to be a remarkably versatile film performer.
Almost all of the action takes place inside a stone cottage on a remote, uninhabited Hebridean island - you could easily imagine Retreat being transferred successfully on to the stage.
Murphy and Newton play a troubled professional couple who have rented the cottage hoping to rescue their relationship. Kate (Newton) has recently lost a baby and has a dark secret. She is crabby, weepy and difficult. Martin (Murphy) is mild-mannered almost to the point of absurdity.
Like the lead character in Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, from which director and co-writer Carl Tibbetts borrows heavily, Martin turns out to be less than competent at important male tasks like managing the generator and repairing the faulty CB radio that is their only contact with the mainland.
Into this unhappy holiday home (which looks oddly smaller on the inside than from the outside) comes a bloodied stranger (Bell).
Kate spots him collapsed on a nearby hillside and brings him in. As he comes to on the sofa, the couple notice that he is wearing an army uniform and carrying a pistol. He tells them that, over the past few days, there has been a global pandemic, like bird-flu but worse, and that they must seal the house against the disease and the fleeing population. He will brook no argument.
The stranger is an obvious nutcase but Martin is pathetically obedient to his orders. The soldier bullies them both, exploiting the obvious tension between the couple and flirting roughly with Kate. Of course Martin will eventually reassert his masculinity, and in doing so win back Kate's affections, though there is a twist in the tale that can be seen quite far off.
Retreat is heavy-handed and soggy. The big secret that stands between Kate and Martin is weak and unimaginative. The film often feels like something a young screenwriter might produce before learning that characters, like stories, have to have a life of their own - they cannot be assembled from other films.