First impressions matter, and Natalie Dormer’s was a corker.
The British bombshell first gained notice as Anne Boleyn in TV’s “The Tudors,” insatiable, scheming, the encyclopedic picture of “man eater.”
It’s an image that’s followed her, for good or ill, ever since. Rare is the film where a Dormer appearance doesn’t involve her fixing her wide blue eyes into “FETCH” mode, and whatever man falls under her gaze, be he racing driver James Hunt (“Rush”) or Captain America, cannot resist, even if he senses the spider’s web she weaves.
She toys with that ferocious baggage in the thriller “In Darkness,” dialing down the allure as a blind London film score pianist, all demure attire, independence and solitude. But something tells us there’s more to this woman than “victim,” when she comes under threat after her neighbor (tabloid and gossip-site queen Emily Ratjakowski) dies.
Dormer co-wrote the script for this overly-complicated tale of war crimes, trauma and seeing both the menace of being hunted and the obstacles of everyday London life through the eyes of the blind.
Irish-born TV director Anthony Byrne (“Mr. Selfridge,” “Ripper Street,” “Peaky Blinders”) co-wrote the script and makes this a tale told with images, extreme close-ups of clues, faces, hazards and violence. We “see” what Sofia (Dormer) cannot. But her London flat’s poor soundproofing lets her “see” the arguments going on upstairs, and when her Serbian neighbor (Ratjakowski) falls to her death.
The too-chatty Detective/Inspector (Neil Maskell) asks her the commonly held misconception that movies about the blind are all built upon.
“Is it true that the loss of one sense sharpens the others?”
Sofia won’t confirm that, but we sense her overhearing conversations, picking up on the dead woman’s perfume, making her way even when she’s forced to exit the London Underground at an unfamiliar station.
And we hear the gun-metal CLACK/CLICK of her unfolding her seeing-eye cane, a woman with purpose and spine and an agenda of her own.
There’s a man following her (Ed Skrein of “The Transporter Refueled” and “Kill Your Friends”). Whatever the dead neighbor had, he wants it. Whatever happened to her, he’s involved. And he’s under the thumb of somebody even more ruthless (Joely Richardson).
But he cannot let anything happen to her until he’s got that Hitchcockian “MacGuffin.”
And then there’s the dead neighbor’s father, an alleged Serbian war criminal (Jan Bijvoet), constantly on the news, fighting extradition and street protesters who want him to face justice.
“In Darkness” is a puzzle picture that keeps adding twists, some of which are smartly foreshadowed, others that come out of the blue. It’s a film that could have been better served had it stopped at “just smart enough.” But Byrne keeps the tension up and the camera tight on Dormer, who lets us see the wheels turning in Sofia’s “dead stare,” and suggests there are cards she’s hiding, cards she has yet to play.
One tasty moment transpires in a women’s restroom, answering the question “How do the blind always keep their hair, clothes and makeup so perfect in the movies?”
Sofia asks the (supposedly unknown to her) villainess (Richardson), “How do I look?”
“Like a Million dollars!”
“Nice shoes,” the blind-woman cracks back to her rival, prompting the viewer to match Richardson’s demonic cackle, note for note.
There have been many better movies that set out to show us how the blind see the world — the thriller “Blink,” and the drama “Blindness,” come to mind. And there are so many twists here that they get in the way of each other, diluting the logic of this possible outcome, or that one.
But Dormer locks our attention in, and makes us root for Sofia, whatever her motives might be.
It’s just that we know, from the moment we see her, what those poor menfolk sharing the screen do not. There’s a meal coming up, and the maneater always locks eyes on the main course.