On September 16, a viral tweet by @HarrietMould caused a stir by showing the world the poster of new film Cordelia and stating: “I legit don’t think I’ve ever seen this pose this way round before.” And thereby, the film’s marketing was practically done for them. The tweeter makes an excellent point – the image used in the poster is extremely refreshing. It shows a woman dominating a man and not in a comedy ‘leather and whips” way. It also prompted much speculation about the film, particularly its period-setting (or lack thereof).
Having now seen the film, I love that this image is the one that has been chosen to spearhead the promotional campaign. Its witty and twisted, like the film itself. To begin to unpack the layers involved in what is actually happening in this still frame would be to spoil, but I will endeavour to convey something of the film’s characters and tone, while leaving plenty for you to discover for yourself.
Cordelia ticks many boxes for me – it’s a psychological thriller with a Gothic atmosphere and features a twisted (brief) relationship between a woman and a man in which the audience does not know who to trust. It has a lot in common with what is perhaps actor Johnny Flynn’s best film – Beast, in which he plays a mysterious man who may or may not be a serial killer. Antonia Campbell-Hughes is the co-writer of Cordelia and the star – she plays the reclusive Cordelia and her more out-going twin sister Caroline. They live in a large London flat inherited from their father. Cordelia is traumatised from having given up her seat on the tube to a blind man, who then went on to be killed in the 2005 bombings. She now suffers from anxiety and survivor’s guilt.
Despite Cordelia’s nervous disposition, she somehow has a career as a theatre actress and this strange juxtaposition is something that could have been explored more in the film. When Caroline goes away for the weekend and leaves Cordelia alone, her paranoia starts to spiral due to strange phone calls she keeps getting. Cordelia meets her upstairs neighbour Frank (Johnny Flynn), whose cello-playing she has been hearing for some time. She discovers that Frank has been spying on and photographing Cordelia and Caroline. Despite this, she invites him for dinner and plays a kind of twisted sexual game with him, proving that perhaps she isn’t the shy wallflower we have been led to believe…
Director Adrian Shergold has had an extensive TV and film career and has recently been busy with the wonderful Funny Cow (starring Maxine Peake) and One Way to Denmark (starring Rafe Spall). He originally developed Cordelia for Sally Hawkins (who has a producer credit). He does a great job here of building a tense atmosphere in the flat, which is similar to a haunted house setting due to the fact that Cordelia is haunted by the man from the tube. Cinematographer Tony Slater Ling uses 35 mm, vintage lenses and split diopters, giving the film a rich texture and depth as well as giving it a timeless feel, with the film’s influences including Peeping Tom (1960). The flat is old-fashioned (the wallpaper in the poster image is what led people to believe it was a period piece) and is closely based on one that Shergold lived in. Shergold clearly has some standing in the industry, as he managed to get Michael Gambon to make a tiny cameo as one of Cordelia’s neighbours and Catherine McCormack and Alun Armstrong to play cast-members in the production of Lear she is working on.
Cordelia is also about the loneliness that can come, even when living in the middle of a city with a population of 9 million. It is refreshing to see a film even tangentially touch on the London tube bombings, which have barely been mentioned in popular culture in the fifteen years since. Cordelia’s PTSD and paranoia start to unravel when she is left alone in the flat, even for a short time. We as an audience don’t know if everything she is experiencing is in her head, or if there are real threats to her. There has been an explosion of films recently, it seems, that deal with gaslighting and having a push/pull between characters (usually a woman and man) where you don’t know where your loyalties should lie.
It goes without saying that Cordelia would not be the film it is without Antonia Campbell-Hughes’ central performance. Her interplay with Johnny Flynn is definitely the highlight of the film and the more unhinged things get between them, the better (for me). This film will not be to everyone’s tastes but is extremely my kind of thing – psychologically complex, dark and twisted and things become increasingly batshit towards the end. The flat plays a palpable character in the film, making everything heightened and alive. This film will reward repeat viewings to pick up on all of the detail in the background of scenes.
Cordelia is an interesting and entertaining British film that subverts audience expectations and plays with character and genre tropes. It takes a little-examined piece of British history and uses it as a jumping-off point to weave a complex tale about trauma, paranoia, loneliness and gender dynamics. It is a great London-set film, that uses both the city and the flat in a way which is integral to the protagonist’s character and story. Add in the Gothic-inspired atmosphere, the twisted psychological and sexual layers and two fantastic central performances and it more than lives up to the poster which sparked such a dialogue on social media.