It’s 2010, and Gemma Arterton is describing to Empire Magazine having spent an entire day shooting kidnap thriller The Disappearance of Alice Creed in tears. “Your body’s not supposed to cry that much. It is exhausting.” Martin Compston, her co-star in the crying scene, agrees in earnest and the interviewer jokes off-camera, “So what you’re saying is: feel-good hit of the summer?”
Compston laughs, “Yeah, Disney Channel!” and Arterton repeats the gag, shaking her head at its ridiculousness “Disney Channel!”
13 years, a brand shift and a streaming revolution later, and Disney is now the UK home of The Disappearance of Alice Creed. Disney+ is also the UK home of writer-director J Blakeson’s latest collaboration with Arterton: TV thriller Culprits, which will release on Hulu in the US on Dec. 8.
That eight-part series is the story of consequences catching up with the diverse crew who pulled off a mega-money heist years earlier. Surrounded by a strong cast including Misfits’ Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Peaky Blinders’ Ned Dennehy, and Raised by Wolves’ Niamh Algar, Arterton is excellent as the high-end crime boss who plans the raid. In her first collaboration with Blakeson on his debut feature, she similarly impressed but in the role of the unsuspecting mark.
Low-Budget, High Suspense Thriller
2009’s The Disappearance of Alice Creed is a low-budget British film that shrugs off all the labels that description might conjure up. It’s not kitchen sink realism themed around bleak social issues in an impoverished town that’s-almost-a-character-in-itself, nor is it a heart-warming tale of a community pulling together against the odds in an impoverished town that’s-almost-a-character-in-itself. We never even find out where it’s set, because that’s irrelevant to this pared-back, highly cinematic suspense thriller. Almost all of the action plays out in two rooms of a single flat, where a couple of crooks are carrying out a meticulously planned kidnap.
That’s not a spoiler, because the film speeds right past all the usual set-up of who the characters are and where they’re from, and skips right to it. With no opening titles or exposition, the dialogue-free opening shows two anonymous men strolling calmly around a DIY shop, ticking off a shopping list and steadily decking out a room and a van – taking mundane sandwich breaks as they go. This is a well thought-out operation by what could be ordinary people and not slavering monsters, which makes it all the more unsettling.
The disquiet continues as their victim, played by Gemma Arterton, is brought in and locked up. The uneasy threat of violence is punctuated by mysteries: who are these people and what led them to this? In just over an hour and a half, the film sparingly delivers answers while keeping the plot turning on its axis and keeping viewers guessing. It’s lean, visual, tense and in absolute control of its story.
That story is told extremely well by the film’s three actors: Eddie Marsan, Martin Compston and Gemma Arterton. In 2009, 41-year-old Marsan was fresh from multiple award wins and nominations for the role of dyspeptic driving instructor Scott in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, after receiving similar accolades for Leigh’s 2004 film Vera Drake. 25-year-old Martin Compston had built a healthy screen career after his acclaimed debut role as a teenager in Ken Loach’s 2002 feature Sweet Sixteen. And 23-year-old Gemma Arterton had just come from roles in two big Hollywood action-adventure movies Clash of the Titans and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, after playing Strawberry Fields opposite Daniel Craig in 2008’s Quantum of Solace.
Arterton’s Acting Reset
For RADA-trained Arterton, The Disappearance of Alice Creed was an acting reset. With an intense four-week shoot on the Isle of Man, a budget roughly one hundredth of that of her previous film, and a psychologically and physically demanding role, it was full on but satisfying work. This lean thriller by a first-time feature director was a world away from the excesses of The Prince of Persia, which was exactly the point. “You’re not just prancing around hitting your mark,” Arterton told Empire about Alice Creed, “you’re actually doing work”.
The work those three actors put in to the film paid off. They sold the realism of its hyper-real situation and cinematic style, and with Blakeson, created characters who were captivating to watch and in a well-trod genre, capable of surprise. Marsan brought both terror and humanity, Compston believably brought the audience with him at every turn, and Arterton completed the triangle with skill and unnerving commitment.
Watch Culprits then, get lost in its twisting story of cash, crime and lies, and enjoy Arterton’s totally different but similarly charismatic performance. Then go back for The Disappearance of Alice Creed and see where this fruitful collaboration first began.
Culprits is out now on Disney+ in the UK and will release Dec. 8 on Hulu in the U.S.