The test is simple in comparison, yet it will determine who leaves this room with a contract of employment, and who leaves with bus fare home.
I would like to think that I have a good knowledge of British cinema, and I am always surprised to see a British film receive straight to DVD treatment as even when I worked in a cinema, the most boring and tedious English films still got at least one week of being run at each cinema, but Exam didn’t have that. I am normally sceptical of these kind of films but the advert on TV made me very intrigued and I went and purchased it with low expectations.
It has a largely unknown cast, with the two best known to the worldwide audience being Jimmy Mistry (2012 and Blood Diamond) and Colin Salmon (several James Bond films, Resident Evil and Alien vs Predator) but other than that the best that the rest of the cast has been involved in is small parts in films (such as Luke Mably in 28 Days Later and Pollyanna McIntosh in Robin Hood), but sometimes having a relatively unknown cast is not a bad thing and in this film it works very well.
Whilst Exam isn’t going to top anyone’s “best film of the year” award, you are constantly sat there as puzzled as the characters as to what is actually going on in one of the most unique psychological thrillers in recent years.
Eight strangers are invited for the final stage of a job interview. They are lead into a room with eight tables and a piece of paper and are met by a man simply known as “The Invigilator” (Salmon). He explains the rules of the interview, such as the candidates are not allowed to spoil their papers, either on purpose or accidentally, nor are they allowed to communicate with anyone who works for the company. They are told that there is one question that they need to answer and they have 80 minutes to answer it.
Upon his departure the characters realise that the pieces of paper are actually blank and they don’t know what the question is. One candidate decides that it is a simple case of writing an essay about why they should get the job, and she in very promptly removed from the room and is disqualified.
Shocked by what has happened, the other candidates remain puzzled as to how to answer a question that they don’t know the answer to and decide to work together, although that proves more difficult than they could have imagined.
So do they ever figure out what the question is?
Well one of them does, but to reveal all of that would spoil the film and actually mean that you didn’t get to experience being as puzzled as the characters as they try and figure out what the question is via various methods.
Most of the characters are excellently written and from the first scene in the film, where they are all shown at their homes preparing for the interview, you get to know some of their traits from that, such as that a religious man that isn’t afraid to get violent as he washes blood off of his sleeve, another is laid back, as he chews gum and flips a coin, and so on. Infact, the film only really makes you curious about one character, and the rest are actually explored quite well, especially the character of “White” (Malby). Early on he decides that there’s no point in learning each other’s names and instead refers to them all by what he deems their most obvious physical trait, such as hair or skin colour, the latter of which really riles the non-white members of the group.
“White” is easily the most enjoyable character of the group to watch and doesn’t hold back and try to be professional like the others, ranging from his racist comments, right through to getting some of the other candidates disqualified through manipulation. He also cleverly deduces that whilst it’s worth working together, you have to make yourself stand out as not once has it been clarified how many positions are going. There could be one, there could have been eight, in that sense he treats it like the TV show “The Apprentice,” working in a team whilst trying to shine.
Each of the characters are very different in many ways that their interactions with each other become increasingly interesting as time goes on. For example, at one point “White” needs medication and because of his behaviour throughout the rest of the film, and even the internal conflict of some of the characters in that situation means that you genuinely don’t know if they will actually give him his medication.
Infact, there are two tortures scenes in the film, and the second one involves “Brown” and “Dark” when it is revealed that the later already works for the company and is an internal candidate. “Brown” isn’t convinced that she is there for genuine reasons and tries to force an admission out of her by going to paper-cut her leg and then her eye open. That scene is tremendously well acted and you genuinely feel that Mistry got a thrill out of torturing her based on how well it is done. Obviously I’m not saying he enjoys torturing someone, but it is arguably the most thrilling and intense scene in the film.
Another interesting aspect of the film is the characters trying to figure out the vague meanings of what the invigilator and how his words can be interpreted. For example “if you spoil your paper, intentionally or accidentally, you will be disqualified” and after they examine the sentence, they realise that although they can’t damage their own paper in any way, they can damage each other’s without risking being chucked out. Alternatively, during the torture sequence they consider throwing him out of the room as that would see him disqualified under the rule “if you choose to leave the room for whatever reason, you will be disqualified,” however, they don’t do this because he wouldn’t be choosing to leave the room.
Throughout the film you are lead to believe one thing and it turns out to be something completely different, in that sense you never know what’s coming and that leads to some interesting aspects of the film. Neither us as the audience, or the characters themselves, ever get a full idea of what’s happening. Unlike some other films we never see what’s happening in the background that the characters can’t see, so we’re left guessing as much as the character.
There are two major things I have with the film and one of them might be a tiny bit of a spoiler. One of the characters that remains at the end isn’t really developed that well. It’s like in horror films when a character makes it to the end that hasn’t really been involved for most of the film, sometimes it works, such as Ripley in “Alien” but the majority of the time it doesn’t, and it becomes ridiculous. Infact, as I write this sentence I am 42 minutes into watching the film for the purposes of reviewing it and this character has only said two sentences, and both were pretty meaningless. Each of the other seven candidates that remain as this point have either already been developed well, or are intriguing, but this character is just bland, uninteresting and the majority of the film is spent with them in the background, not really contributing.
The second is something that bugs and that is that the way they get to some of the solutions to the problems they face is a bit far fetched. For example, it is pointed out that all the candidates are very intelligent, which is fair enough, but there is a scene early on in the film where they start thinking that light will reveal the answer and this eventually involves into them hitting the lights with chairs, revealing blacklight and infrared. It becomes very far fetched.
An enjoyable 95 minute film that constantly makes you question what you think you know about what the film is about and what is being said. It becomes a bit tedious at time but not once, except for right at the end, do you fully understand what is happening and that’s what makes you keep going.
It may be very low budget, but low budget isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If I had to liken this to any other film it would be the incredible “Cube”, it’s claustrophobic, the characters don’t really know what’s going on (although in this they actually have a way out) and you’re constantly left guessing as to what is happening.