Weekend Retreat review

Sarah checks out the Cornish comedy thriller Weekend Retreat, and finds much to enjoy in its compact, darkly funny tale...

The first 20 minutes of Weekend Retreat are deceptive. When  a clearly struggling couple head out to the countryside for a weekend of quality time away from civilisation, it’s hard to avoid the sinking feeling that this is going to turn into another one of those horror movies The Cabin In The Woods so skilfully sent up.

So when their car breaks down and their mobile phones don’t work, you might roll your eyes. And when they arrive at the cottage only to find someone sinister lurking in the shadows? Yeah, you saw that coming. But stick with it. After the first 20 minutes, Weekend Retreat reveals itself to be a very different kind of a film – a much cleverer, much more interesting one.

For one thing, it’s not a horror movie. It’s a thriller, a heist-gone-wrong kind of film, with plenty of dark comedy and even a little tenderness thrown in for good measure. At the 20 minute mark, the film rewinds the story so far and starts again: so, before Karen and Duncan arrive for their less-than-relaxing getaway, the empty house attracts the attention of Gary and Kevin, a pair of half-brothers desperate to find the money for their mother’s funeral.

Knowing there’s something valuable in a safe inside, they don balaclavas and break in, tying up the house’s caretaker and attempting to torture him for the safe’s combination. But they’re far from hardened criminals, and the job turns out to be far more difficult than they’d anticipated. When the two timelines tie up, chaos ensues.

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Bringing those characters and stories together is a clever idea, and the script is great: it’s never entirely predictable, the characters are well-rounded and believable, and in places it’s genuinely laugh-out-loud funny without ever becoming ridiculous. It helps that the cast are all so great, too. Most of them are familiar faces from British TV, and they’re all perfectly suited to their characters. (The highlight is definitely Dudley Sutton; he more than runs away with every scene he’s in.)

The strength of the performances also means that, though there’s not a huge amount of violence until the very end, what little brutality there is seems particularly effective. You feel it when someone gets injured, and it’s hard not to wince in sympathy. It’s an economical film in a lot of ways – it’s only 78 minutes long, and it’s set in one location with a small group of characters – but it really makes the most of what it’s got.

There are a couple of minor things that let Weekend Retreat down, though. The overuse of post-production effects is one; the night-time scenes are so dark it’s hard to really see what’s going on, and though the colourful lighting is visually interesting, there’s a kind of vignette effect going on that means only the centre of the picture is really lit. It’s a bit like watching a film through a tunnel, and it doesn’t quite work. Happily, that only affects the first few scenes, and once those are over it’s actually a pretty good looking film, with some interesting camerawork and smart editing.

The other thing is also only relevant to the beginning of the film: that set-up just doesn’t really work. By starting off with one narrative, then introducing another plotline happening before and alongside the first one, you end up seeing several scenes more than once, and the potential for tension is lost. It might have been more effective for the film to play out in chronological order, so that the audience is always in on the fact that the would-be burglars are lurking in the house even while the unhappy couple are remarking on how beautiful and romantic everything looks.  

But because we already know the exact moment when these two sets of characters will encounter one another, there’s no urgency to the scenes of the burglars hiding; we know that no matter how close Karen or Duncan come to their hiding place, they won’t be found yet, and watching the same awkward scenes between the couple through the eyes of the intruders doesn’t really add much to them. Admittedly, by the time you get to the end of the film you’ve forgotten the less-than-exciting first impression it made, but it seems a shame that a film that’s otherwise so creative and so clever got off on the wrong foot.

Still, it seems harsh to quibble over a chronology issue when there’s so much to like about this movie. It’s especially impressive when you consider that this is only writer/director Brett Harvey’s first full-length movie – on the strength of this, his next project could well be amazing.

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Weekeend Retreat is available to pre-order now from its filmmakers’ website.

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4 out of 5