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2018 Berlin Film Festival Review: Steven Soderbergh’s intriguing and superbly acted ‘Unsane’ with Claire Foy

Synopsis: After being a victim of stalking, a woman gets admitted by force into a mental health facility. Little does she know that a major surprise is waiting for her there.

UNSANE is a breath of fresh air at the Berlinale this year. In the middle of grim, serious and important films from all over the world, Steven Soderbergh’s latest film is a great example of pure fun and a reminder that when a film does not take itself too seriously, it can succeed if the intrigue is there to keep the audience invested throughout.

Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is a victim of stalking. After being tormented by a persisting and ruthless stalker, she leaves her town, gets a new job and is looking for a fresh start. But memories from her past continue to haunt her which leads her to resort to a mental health institute hoping for some consultation on how to get rid of her demons. Things take a strange turn when she is admitted by force to spend a week at the facility after she is deemed dangerous and could potentially be of harm to herself and others. Once she finds herself in a ward full of insane – and sane – people, she attempts to find a way out. But a major surprise is waiting for her there.

Steven Soderbergh is a master of tone. Like several of his pervious films, the tone here is consistent and focused. Filmed entirely on an iPhone, Soderbergh is clearly making a low-budget thriller that is both accessible and a crowd pleaser. There is no pretentiousness or attempts to make the film more important or urgent than it. Even with the current climate in Hollywood – and how the film comes at a perfect time – Soderbergh refrains from offering a bigger context for the film. It is clear he is having fun directing the film – and this translates effectively to the audience, leading them, too, to be fully engaged with the story throughout.

It is a thriller, with a powerful female character in the lead, but it does boast several fresh elements outside its shooting style. It’s been a while when we have got an engaging stalker movie as this one, one that stays away from horror cliché’s and tries to offer a bit more depth and less cheap scares and one-note characters aimed at those looking for mindless horror. Soderbergh gives both the stalker and his female lead interesting dimensions and his cast superbly delivers the good.

Claire Foy is superb as Swayer, a tormented, strong and ferocious woman looking for an exit from her past and her imprisonment in the facility. As David, Swayer’s stalker, Joshua Leonard creates a fascinating character that is a wonderful showcase for the gifted actor. He brings depth and nuance to the character and stays away from one-note performances typically seen with these type of characters. Juno Temple makes the best out of her under-written role and Jay Pharoah stands out and offers great comic relief without going over-the-top.

UNSANE may not totally break new ground or offer a shocking addition to the genre, but it does offer more than a standard horror/thriller flick with generally well-written characters, genuine surprises that never delve into cheap, jump-scare territory while also delivering a fun experience that mainstream audiences will appreciate.

Verdict: Fun, intriguing and superbly acted, UNSANE is a well-made film with a strong command of tone and atmosphere. A welcome addition to Soderbergh’s filmography.

Grade: B+

Bleecker Street is set to release UNSANE in US theaters on March 23.

Mina Takla

Mina Takla is a foreign correspondent for AwardsWatch and the co-founder of The Syndicate, an online news agency that offers original content services to several film brands including Empire Magazine’s Middle East edition and the Dubai Film Festival. Takla has attended, covered and written from over 10 film festivals online including the Dubai International Film Festival, Abu Dhabi Film Festival, Cannes, Venice and Annecy Film Festivals. He has been following the Oscar race since 2000 with accurate, office-pool winning predictions year after year. He writes monthly in Empire Arabia, the Arabic version of the world’s top cinema magazine and conducts press junkets with Hollywood stars in the UK and the US. He holds a Master’s degree in Strategic Marketing from Australia’s Wollongong University and is currently based in Dubai, UAE.

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