Erstwhile screenwriter Stuart Hazeldine’s (Knowing) directorial debut, Exam, will, no doubt, cause a lot of interest due to its high concept premise, but the ensuing film barely delivers. From the start, Exam has a tantalising set-up, using its micro-budgeted, Brit-indie restrictions to the fullest.
There are eight candidates applying for a job at a mysterious, world-conquering company. However, fittingly for such a shady institution, the interview process forgoes team-building exercises and knotted cross-analysis in favour of something a little more intense. To this end, the young hopefuls are herded into a nondescript room, and are faced with an exam, in which they are tasked to answer one question in 80 minutes. However, there’s one catch: after a brief, foreboding introduction, the test-takers turn over their crisp papers to blinding blankness. With the clock ticking, what will they do? Do they work together? What is the question?
Exam is high concept filmmaking at its most basic and bold. Everything is tied into its central narrative hook – the title, the poster, the tagline (’80 minutes. 8 candidates. 1 answer. No Question. How Far Would You Go To Win The Ultimate Job?’). It is memorable and beguiling, working its way into your head with the thrill of the slightly-known, but still wholly unknown. It’s an approach to cinema that has fallen by the wayside a little in recent years, and you’d have to reach back a fair amount of years to find a set up as strong as this one.
Sadly, it’s all a bit blunt and obvious, with early illusions of depth betrayed by easy pot-shots at money-grabbing yuppies, Apprentice-era reality show stunts and the desperation that permeates the employment world in the time of recession.
Hazeldine shoots for a style that is twisty, meditative and tense, but Exam comes off more humourless and vapid. After an atmospheric opening sequence that progresses in extreme close-ups of the candidates as they prepare for the exam, we are locked in with them for the duration, subject to their jolts of paranoia, underhand betrayals, and illogical undulations of mood.
The eight characters are awkward, stiff archetypes that the film knowingly (or lazily) incorporates, as it is suggested early on that there be no names in the exam room, so instead we are presented with White (Luke Mably), Brown (Jimi Mistry), Blonde (Natalie Cox), Black (Chuck Iwuji), Brunette (Pollyanna McIntosh), Dark (Adar Beck) and Deaf (John Lloyd Fillingham).
With the digital clock counting downwards, Exam lurches forward, exploiting every idea it can muster for the purpose of building tension: the spoken instructions are over-analysed, lights are broken, sprinkler systems are fiddled with and, eventually, the shaky alliance between the candidates deteriorates quite nastily.
There’s no doubting the unsettling effect of using a sheet of paper as a torture device, but even the best ideas (which are few and far between) lack the necessary impact, due in major part to the pedestrian writing and shallow characterisation.
Hazeldine makes a gamble, and attempts to throw in some ancillary information about the outside world, revealing Exam‘s slightly dystopic near-future, with huge pharma-corporations, and a public in the grips of a thinly-defined virus. Narrated in heavy-handed, expository references, it is, in the end, little more than time-wasting padding – something for the characters to do until the next turn of the screw.
Exam‘s worst offences all occur right at its end, and are three in number. If you’re going to cook up such a scintillating concept, you had damn well better have a suitable pay-off up your sleeve. Exam‘s ending bait-and-switch is underwhelming and insulting, with a character-based twist that plagiarises Saw, and the solution to the enigmatic test being less a head-scratcher and more a (frustrating) head-slapper. That this is all puzzled out by the least developed candidate does little to lure in the viewer, who will probably greet the overly-long, dryly explanatory coda with an open-mouthed expression of disbelief.
There is just too much squandered potential here. Exam‘s premise could have, in turn, provided something insightful, satirical, or poetically surreal in the vein of the locked-in drama of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter. Or even a simply satisfying thriller, with some better ideas, sharper writing and less forgettable characters.
Instead, it is a film with a lot of high emotions, jarring shifts in tone and a conclusion that makes it all seem pointless in retrospect, or, in other words, a dumb method of whittling away an hour and a half of your time.
Exam might work better as a late night flick to catch on TV during a bout of insomnia, but – unless you’re an unfailing supporter of British cinema – there is little reason to go out of your way to see it.