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Film Review

OLD (2021) Review

Neil reviews M. Night Shyamalan’s OLD saying that whilst it will no doubt “divide its audience” the film features “an intriguing premise” and “unique flourishes.”

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Old (Universal Pictures)

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan, Old stars stars Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Ken Leung, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abbey Lee, Aaron Pierre, Alex Wolff, Embeth Davidtz, Eliza Scanlen, Emun Elliott, Kathleen Chalfant and Thomasin McKenzie. The film is due in UK cinemas now.

Synopsis

This summer, visionary filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan unveils a chilling, mysterious new thriller about a family on a tropical holiday who discover that the secluded beach where they are relaxing for a few hours is somehow causing them to age rapidly … reducing their entire lives into a single day.

Review

“Time is a fire in which we burn” said Malcolm McDowell during his villainous turn in Star Trek: Generations. If that were true of M. Night Shyamalan’s Old then the cast of this film would be toast.

In his thirteenth release, Shyamalan has set out to remind the movie-going audience that we often lack the appreciation for our time on this Earth. Strip away the distractions and what do we have? We’re born, we grow old and we die. Old instead takes aim at the social conventions we use to distract ourselves from the passing of time. Getting married, having children etc. All comes under the magnifying glass whilst trapped on a mysterious beach.

The film is based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters. Shyamalan takes the basic premise and certain themes from Sandcastle, expanding upon them greatly. Some of the added context bolsters the plot and allows for the standard third-act Shyamalan twist. Other changes feel contrived in advancing the journey. But all are forgivable in adapting an ambiguous plot into something more finite.

Our focus for much of the plot is insurance salesman Gus (Gael Garciá Bernal), his curator wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps) and their young children Maddox and Trent. The four are on a holiday-of-a-lifetime to a (literally) magical island paradise. Trent befriends Idlib, the nephew of the hotel manager, who seems to know there’s something strange in the neighbourhood. Gus also picks up on the Anamika resort’s connection to a large pharmaceutical company.

Over the course of their first night we learn that Prisca and Gus are planning to separate. Also that one of the two is sick with a hopefully benign tumour. Unfortunately the parents fail to recognise that children are adept on picking up on the emotional difficulties of their elders.

The next morning the family, along with several others guests, are encouraged by the hotel manager to visit a secluded beach. The hotelier even goes so far as to arrange transport and pack food for the group. What wonderful, five-star service. Until of course things begin to go south.

Shyamalan buries some wonderful subtext in these early moments. Prisca fails to hear her husband’s affection whilst Gus fails to see what is going on before his very eyes. This comes full circle as the two rapidly age with Prisca losing her hearing and Gus his sight. For the kids, their loss of innocence is central to the main plot of the film.

Old features a mixed bag of supporting characters. There’s Charles (Rufus Sewell) the cardio thoracic surgeon, his mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant), his wife Chrystal (Abby Lee) and their young daughter Kara. Another couple from the resort, Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and Jarin (Ken Leung) turn up later having missed the shuttle due to Patricia having an epileptic fit. Soon a body washes ashore, and suspicion falls on famous rapper Mid-Size Sedan (Aaron Pierre) who was with the woman before she died.

Hats off to the casting director for nailing the series of actors playing each of the children. The progression from ages as low as 6 through to adulthood is perfect. Any of other studio would engage a bag of CGI tricks to complete this. Old carries it off perfectly with a spot of makeup.

The beach is where Old really comes to life. There’s real terror in the realisation that time is precious. It’s something we all know but barely take time to recognise. For each of the characters there’s something to lose. We learn that several have medical ailments, something which becomes an obstacle to their eventual survival. It’s the central point where all characters and storylines converge.

The focus on his characters forces Shyamalan to make some bold choices. A number of grizzly moments, some truly heartbreaking, happen off screen. Sometimes they are audible and at others they are merely implied. But throughout Old there are conscious choices to step away from gore and focus on reactions. Sometimes it makes the film feel sanitised but a rational mind tells me these are actually unique moments which avoid standard tropes.

A lot of the hits come in the film’s opening half with the pacing evening out in the middle. There are moments when Old drags, mainly when Shyamalan’s dialogue ventures in to exposition heavy territory. At times the script does a lot of the work for the audience, leaving little to the imagination. It shines a light on some of the more illogical plot devices which could threaten to derail a lesser narrative.

There are also a number of shaky VFX scenes, mainly obvious green screen work, but thankfully they are few and far between with much of the action purely taking place on the beach.

Verdict

In the grand tradition of M. Night Shyamalan, Old will no doubt divide its audience. An intriguing premise with some unique flourishes. Though it doesn’t fully stick the landing, a shaky Shyamalan finish still deserves considerable credit.


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