Accused had its world première at The Overlook Film Festival 2023
Whether with his crime drama Villain (2020) or his single-take kitchen thriller Boiling Point (2021), actor turned director Philip Barantini has proven expert at staging simmering tensions in contemporary Britain. Accordingly, even though his latest feature Accused concerns a witch-hunt, it is set not in Europe’s post-medieval period or America’s early colonial era, but in the England of today. Its opening shot of an individual’s social media feed – a stream of innocuous observations on life’s banalities – establishes both the happy-go-lucky, utterly harmless character of protagonist Harri Bhavsar (Chaneil Kular), and also the online arena for what might just prove his undoing.
A recent graduate working as a graphics designer in London, Harri is settling into a serious relationship with his girlfriend Chloe (Lauryn Ajufo), even if has not yet worked up the courage to introduce her to his loving but overwhelming parents Ramesh (Nitin Ganatra) and Isha (Nila Aalia). As he travels by train to his family’s Yorkshire home where he is to look after the dog while his parents head off overseas for a holiday, news breaks that an explosive device has gone off, killing several people, at the central London station which Harri’s train just left. Confused but relieved to be alive, Harri continues on his journey, and after briefly catching up with his parents, and mentioning Chloe to them for the first time, he is left alone (with a dog) in the big country house.
As a high-angle CCTV photo of the suspect is published, his face hidden by a baseball cap, Chloe jokes over the phone about how similar the man looks to Harri: the clothes are different, but the body shape, beard and even the hat are an uncanny match. Soon someone else who knew Harri in school has noticed too, and while Harri dozes in front of the television screening James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), a casual observation made on Twitter quickly escalates into open assertions that Harri is the bomber. The rumour makes a monster of Harri, who wakes to find that he is victim of an unsubstantiated, entirely circumstantial online smear, fuelled by public anger and hard racism – and that there are some people out there already using the Internet to track down who Harri is and where he is staying, so that they can bring violent vigilante justice right to his door, with a hammer, a baseball bat and an axe.
Written by Barnaby Boulton and James Cummings, Accused combines the familiar tropes of home invasion, siege flick and survival thriller to bring a pacy tension to its preoccupations. The speed of events here is key, as Barantini dramatises, in near real time, the way that casual comments online can snowball into a baseless campaign of mass hate, and then into harrowing real-life repercussions. Harri’s cat-and-mouse with his masked persecutors (Robbie O’Neill, Jay Johnson) may be using the language of genre to depict an engagement between a user and anonymous online attackers, but the depiction here of a rolling news cycle which irresponsibly publishes unverified materials sourced entirely from social media rings uncomfortably true, as does the overt xenophobic nationalism which propels many of Harri’s vicious ‘critics’. Harri is falsely demonised, and many are ready to believe in the ramifying representation of him as a terrorist, a murderer and a monster, because it is a characterisation that comfortably conforms to all of their insular prejudices. Any voice of reason – and there are a few seen in the stream – is drowned out by the ugly mob mentality that has so readily formed, baying for blood and ready to scapegoat.
Once the error of these dangerous, potentially life-destroying slurs is exposed, the film cynically shows Harri’s accusers deleting their tweets and making their accounts private no less quickly and easily than they posted their vitriol in the first place, erasing and abnegating their own insidious accountability. Amid all this calumny, maliciously made and just as maliciously spread and ultimately wiped, the film’s final image – a bruised and battered face staring into the camera – is a j’accuse to us all, as we are challenged to consider what our own small part might be (an uncritical retweet? an ill-considered amplification? an engagement in the ‘banter’ of vilification? an open call to arms? an angry taking up of arms?) in a modern-day witch-hunt and lynching.
strap: In Philip Barantini’s tense home invasion thriller, an innocent young man is fast made a monster by a baseless online campaign
© Anton Bitel