Studio: Well Go USA
Director: Adam Levins
Writer: Simon Fantauzzo, William Borthwick
Producer: William Borthwick
Stars: Amy Manson, Craig Conway, James Lance, Eileen Nicholas, Nora-Jane Noone, Simon Quarterman, James Cosmo
Forced to return home after a six-year estrangement, a woman with amnesia suspects her family is hiding a sinister secret.
In desperate need of a place for his girlfriend to recuperate after a harrowing accident, Callum calls January’s estranged father and receives an okay to bring the young woman home. Callum knows January hasn’t seen or spoken to her family in six years, but he doesn’t know why. January doesn’t know why, either. Not only did the accident temporarily take her mobility, it also took her memory.
Mother Marilyn and father Albert may as well be strangers given the understandable awkwardness of their initial reunion with January. Brother Laurence and sister Katherine fare no better, appearing unfamiliar with how to be warm or welcoming. Whatever the wedge that came between everyone, it is a matter unspoken of now. But the way January’s presence causes butler Thomas to fidget suggests something suspicious threatens to violently shake every branch on this dysfunctional family tree.
“Estranged” is unclear about the time period when it takes place. The setting appears to be the present, though the isolated English manor January calls home again hasn’t freshened its furnishings since Churchill was Prime Minister. (The filming location was Lord Lambton’s estate in County Durham.) There is comfort in that familiarity for her, yet the coldness coming from its occupants unsettles January with doubt, uncertainty, and fear.
The key to unlocking her family’s secret is lost in January’s amnesia. With the strangeness in the house growing increasingly troubling, January is certain that if she cannot piece together the puzzle soon, the mental torment might tear her mind apart.
Familiar to many as Jeor Mormont of the Knight’s Watch on “Game of Thrones,” James Cosmo plays primary scene-stealer as lord of the manor Albert. Cosmo’s screen presence is akin to a magnet pulling all eyes toward him through physical imposition alone. The act of Cosmo simply speaking is the equivalent of an unspoken hush where a pin could be heard dropping in a sold-out sports stadium. Heaven help everyone in the room once Cosmo’s character has his chance to fully unleash the rage of an unstoppable china shop bull.
Eileen Nicholas’ empty-eyed smile gives mother Marilyn both heartbreaking sympathy and frustrating catatonia in equal measure. Nora-Jane Noone and James Lance turn in fine supporting performances as the strange siblings. Lance’s characterization as a socially awkward manchild of privilege is perhaps too on the nose. Outfitted with white shorts, a polo shirt, and a five-pound watch, the costuming department may as well have gone the additional kilometer with a cardigan tied around the shoulders and a tennis racket under an arm. Some explanation for such lack of nuance enters into the story later, although the audience is somewhat required to insert it for themselves.
As it should be given her starring role, Amy Manson is uncompromisingly excellent as January. Her performance is a true test of acting prowess with its crushing emphasis on making a convincing emotional arc out of expressions, eyes, and posture. January’s wearying breakdown of will and subsequent resurgence of identity is powerfully portrayed with both outstanding understatement and impressive explosiveness.
POSSIBLY MILD SPOILER
“Estranged” earns extra credit for being a rare memory loss thriller in that the major twist is not a revelation regarding the hero’s pre-trauma status as a villain. That often turns out to be the case in more movies than can be counted on six hands. For “Estranged,” outsmarting viewers with disbelief-suspending “gotcha!” moments is something excluded from the agenda.
“Estranged” never stretches its mystery past the point of reason and never further than necessary for maintaining enough tightness to keep the plot spinning forward with simplicity. The modestly weird mood doesn’t aspire to a Roman Polanski level of “what’s really going on here?” paranoia, but it doesn’t have to when the delicate darkness it does have is suitably fitting for the tone of tension on hand.
Inspired by J.B. Priestly’s stage play “An Inspector Calls,” “Estranged” is a refreshing respite from more complicated mindbenders about memory loss. January’s troubled family ties don’t come with the high stakes of “Total Recall” or puzzle-piece narrative of “Memento.” Director Adam Levins and co-writers Simon Fantauzzo and William Borthwick keep their style streamlined for straightforward suspense. “Estranged” has more than its fair share of intrigue and unexpected turns, but there is succinctness in its story making its terror frighteningly down-to-earth.
Review Score: 80