Unseen

The Unseen (2017)

The Unseen first published by Little White Lies

Writer/director Gary Sinyor is best known for making comedy features (Leon the Pig Farmer; United We Fall), occasionally with a bit of high-concept fantasy thrown in (Solitaire for 2; In Your Dreams) – but The Unseen is his first foray into gothic, as its story veers ambiguously between the supernatural and mental breakdown.

Audiobook reader Gemma Shields (Jasmine Hyde) and Will (Richard Flood) are living a life of domestic bourgeois contentment with their toddler son Joel – until one night Joel drowns on Gemma’s watch. Haunted by grief, guilt and blame, the couple goes into emotional free fall: Gemma starts experiencing panic attacks, with symptoms that include temporary blindness; while Will, insisting that he can still hear little Joel talking in his bedroom, turns to religion for comfort. Desperate to repair their fragmenting relationship, they go on a weekend retreat to a lavish new Lake District guesthouse owned by Paul (Simon Cotton), a sympathetic stranger who had helped Gemma when she had her first panicky loss of vision.  

“He’s a birdwatcher – a fucking birdwatcher,” says Will of Paul, as he encourages Gemma to join him in some ‘snooping’ about the place while their host is away. “No wonder his wife ran off.” Once the action has moved to the Cumbrian countryside, the film’s focus also shifts to the over-solicitous Paul whose professional connections to pharmaceuticals and microphones begin to dovetail in unexpected ways into the Shields’ tragic story.

Like Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (right down, slyly, to its title), The Unseen begins with a moment of parental distraction followed by deep mourning, and then takes its characters’ trauma out of the home environment, while insinuating, at least in their minds, the presence of a ghost. Gradually, as in Roeg’s film, a rational explanation will emerge for most of the strange goings-on, but blindness – both literal and metaphorical, and figured in the film by blurry POV shots that obfuscate events – keeps turning the screw on genre. For the film is simultaneously an intimate psychodrama, and one of those thrillers – think Wait Until Dark, Blink and Julia’s Eyes – that place sight-impaired heroines in peril, and, maybe just maybe, also a genuine ghost story.  

What The Unseen lacks though is Roeg’s economy. As these characters travel North West, then home, then North West again, the film meanders on its own round trip, with just a bit too much repetitive dialogue about Gemma’s lost sight and Will’s preternatural hearing. And while it makes sense, in circumstances so recriminatory, that the couple should be prickly, so little chemistry exists between them, with Will in particular proving brash, accusatory and increasingly deranged, that their deep love for one another is something which has, time and time again, to be stated explicitly by the script in case (as is likely) the viewer should otherwise miss it.

The performances, though, are all good, and the sterile modernity of both the Shields’ and Paul’s respective domiciles suits these peculiarly alienated people who, unseen, haunt each other’s homes. 

Anticipation: Not a fan of Solitaire for 2 – but that was long ago.

Enjoyment: A twisty road, but also meandering.

In Retrospect: Repetitive narrative, saved by a great ending.

© Anton Bitel