Film Review – The Colony (2016)

Emma Watson and Daniel Bruhl head The Colony, a 1970s set cult thriller from filmmaker Florian Gallenberger based on Chile’s Colonia Dignidad headed up my leader Paul Schäfer. Gallenberger’s film can feel over melodramatic and exploitative, despite some tensely directed moments and performances with relative conviction from Watson and Bruhl.

Also written by Gallenberger, The Colony opens in 1973 Chile where air stewardess Lena (Watson) and her revolutionary boyfriend Daniel (Bruhl) are separated through a military coup. Lena voluntary checks into Colonia Dignidad, the cult facility where Daniel is being held by the twisted Paul Schäfer (Michael Nyqvist).

Curiously The Colony initially places itself as a Westerner in South America romance with a pop soundtrack and romanticised depictions of the bustling and bright Chilean streets. Here the romance between Lena and Daniel is briefly documented but lacks sufficient back-story. How does glamorous air stewardness Lena find herself in a relationship with a Chilean revolutionary? This forced romantic tone quickly changes when Pinochet’s military coup takes hold and Daniel is taken to Colonia Dignidad. Gallenberger’s film then veers into more grim territory as it begins to document the brutality and authoritarian control of the Colonia Dignidad.

Without any real character depth or backstory and with the little time spent establishing them, it’s a struggle to invest in the idea of Daniel and Lena as a couple – furthered by the fact that they spend most of their time at Dignidad separated. However, this romance is not the key focus of The Colony, instead Gallenberger’s narrative finds itself documenting the abuses going on from the regular beatings of women to scenes of child abuse by Schäfer. The Colony never digs deep enough into the beliefs of Dignidad and its leader and subsequently does not pay much of a critique to this distorted morality, instead depicting it without much comment and therefore feeling somewhat exploitative to the true victims of these crimes. In contrast with other recent cult films like Ti West’s The Sacrament, The Colony feels a little more shallow.

However, Gallenberger’s direction is undeniably tense and as a canvas for a thriller the colony setting works well. Although exploitative, one cannot deny the cheap effectiveness of these beating scenes or the nastiness of the off-screen suggestions of child abuse. This really kicks into gear when Lena and Daniel are reunited in The Colony and attempt to formalise an escape plan – Gallenberger’s shoots this with a thrilling energy and nerve-shredding tension.

Despite the lack of conviction in Daniel and Lena as a couple, Watson and Bruhl fare better when depicting their characters individually navigating through Dignidad. Watson brings a gutsy determination to Lena – a woman brave enough to enter a cult in the hope of saving her boyfriend – despite the role not exactly feeling like a perfect fit for her. Bruhl is solid in the role of Daniel, regardless of the slightly-off chemistry with his co-star. The most impressive of The Colony‘s cast is Michael Nyqvist‘s toe-curlingly nasty Schäfer – bringing a larger than life energy to this grisly role.

The Colony is a patchy watch that can unintentionally feel exploitative through its thin scripting. Nonetheless Gallenberger’s punchy direction gives the tale a unnerving tension and Nyqvist successfully channels Schäfer’s deplorable character.

[rating=3] | Andrew McArthur

History, Drama | Germany, 2015 | 15 | 2016 Edinburgh Film Festival | Signature Entertainment | 1st July 2016 (UK) | Dir.Florian Gallenberger | Emma Watson, Daniel Brühl, Michael Nyqvist, Richenda Carey