Throw eight strangers into a room to compete for a high-powered job by way of an 80-minute written test - one question, one answer - and you have the set-up for Stuart Hazeldine's directorial debut Exam. On the surface it's all very Apprentice - Colin Salmon's imposing invigilator stands in for the studious Nick Hewer and an Alan Sugar overlord comes into play, but the stakes here are much higher than the BBC reality programme. This turns out to be life and death.
Exam's candidates, a cross-section of society, pull together when they turn over their test papers to be confronted with a blank sheet. Names are dispensed with (everyone takes an alias based on appearance or race) stereotypes adhered to as Hazeldine assembles familiar personalities to quickly establish friction within the group. There's Luke Mably's White, a swaggering idiot who's glad the world's run by doers not thinkers; Jimi Mistry's Brown, a laid-back operator with a dark side; Nathalie Cox's clever and resourceful Blonde; and Adar Beck's Dark, an American fond of psychoanalysis. White causes the most problems, but to the filmmakers' credit they give him (and several others) a credible ulterior motive.
A slick and absorbing thriller that juggles mind horror, science fiction and ratcheted-up tension, this is an accomplished debut and useful calling card for Hazeldine. His intricate script uncoils so that the viewer is essentially the ninth candidate in the room, discovering the answers as the characters do. It's not hard to understand why Hollywood has requested Hazeldine's scripting prowess (he's working on Paradise Lost and Alex Proyas's The Tripods) because Exam is a neat jigsaw puzzle of a picture. If you see a gun, you know it's going to be fired (but when, and in this case how?) and a pair of glasses discarded on the floor will be of significance... Hitchcock would admire the diligence shown in prop placement and pay-off.
There are occasional pacing issues with expository dialogue bogging things down and the widescreen photography doesn't quite lend itself to the claustrophobic atmosphere. The ending is slightly flat and half-expected, but strolling instead of sprinting across the finish line is forgivable when what precedes it is gripping and leaves you wondering about the state of the world outside the exam room's four walls. There's on-the-button resonance, too, with the virus that the drugs company is tackling evocative of the swine flu outbreak and the candidates' desperate scramble for the job reflecting financial insecurity.
This premise could have veered off into boring Saw-type grisly horror, but Exam has a little more going on upstairs than the endless torture horror series. A moment of physical distress happens when Mistry's character attempts to extract information from a possible plant using papercuts yet Hazeldine admirably pushes psychological intensity over gore. Reminiscent of Cube and Fermat's Room (that rare breed of thriller, one based around maths!), Exam is clever and precisely crafted entertainment.
> What do you think of the movie? Share your views