Exam -- Film Review

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EDINBURGH -- TV's "The Apprentice" gets a futuristic re-imagining via in-demand scriptwriter Stuart Hazeldine's tense directorial debut "Exam." This darkly comic Brit miniature will find plenty of festival play, especially among those with late-night slots to fill, though the emphasis on psychological nastiness rather than actual gore restricts commercial prospects. Ancillary will likely yield the best returns. There's also potential for a Stateside remake.

Hazeldine has carved himself a niche as rewrite-man for several Hollywood science-fiction extravaganzas. "Exam," by contrast, is a taut chamber-piece in which the camera hardly leaves a single windowless, Kubrickian, ultra-modern space. This is where eight candidates (nearly all photogenic sorts in their 20s and 30s) assemble for an exam to decide who wins the coveted post of assistant to a vast bio-tech corporation's mysterious CEO.

Greeted by a stern invigilator (Colin Salmon, deadpan-droll) who lays down specific rules governing the test, the octet are left to their own devices. The first unpleasant surprise is that their exam-papers appear blank. With a large clock ticking down the hour of their allotted time, this fiercely ambitious bunch will have to work together if they have any hope of coming up with the required answer -- or even discovering the question.

All manner of psychological mind-games quickly ensue, revealing that Hazeldine has made careful study of previous closed-room enterprises such as Jean-Paul Sartre's "Vicious Circle," Oliver Hirschbiegel's "The Experiment" and Vincenzo Natali's "Cube." This sub-genre always places enormous emphasis on the performers and it's to these actors' credit that they make their nameless characters convincing and credible here, with Luke Mably's swaggeringly solipsistic bad-boy charisma (as "White") dominating both group and film.

Such a premise also demands meticulous tightness from start to finish, so it's unfortunate that Hazeldine introduces a fantastical (but topical) subplot involving a global pandemic that feels like an artificial attempt to up the ante. Much more effective, however, are a couple of clever final-act twists that may surprise even the most genre-savvy viewer.

Venue: Edinburgh Film Festival