tue 18/06/2019

Contagion | reviews, news & interviews

Contagion

Contagion

An airborne virus runs amok in Steven Soderbergh's star-laden thriller

Gwyneth Paltrow succumbs to mysterious virus in 'Contagion'

What goes around, well, goes around in Steven Soderbergh's Contagion, which manages the dual feat of being at once scare-mongering (hypochondriacs should stay well clear) and stultifyingly dull. A variant on the we're-all-essentially-connected school of cinema that includes Babel and the recent London Film Festival opener, 360, the film charts a virus's progression from a seemingly inoffensive cough to a pandemic capable of felling one in 12 people on the planet, in which case I assume Hollywood itself might have to call it quits.

That would be no bad thing if this represents the best that proper film-makers can do: a movie that wears its grimness like some putative badge of honour as if to bring even a smidgen of wit to the table would be to discredit the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Winslet, both of whom are seen working up a furious, and ominous, sweat. Instead, Scott Z Burns's script brings many a furrowed brow to bear to the tale of a rampaging disease that seems curiously choosy when it comes to its destinations. Despite the fact that 70 million people or more could perish, or so we're informed, such metropolises as New York are never mentioned in the list of blighted locales. Are we meant to infer that some urban centres have already suffered enough? In which case this is the most peculiarly selective pestilence to come down the cinematic pike in many a long year.

Enough of quibbling about a script that - with one or two exceptions - expresses zero interest in character except for a starry cast's individual potential as so many big-deal corpses. An ancillary question is posed by the presence of an Oscar-heavy slew of name players that amounts (as a friend remarked in passing beforehand) to a contagion of moviedom A-listers all its own. In fact, I'd give top marks to Broadway's rightly beloved Jennifer Ehle, playing a doctor from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention who manages to look purposeful, even sexy, cocooned in one of various necessarily protective suits.

It's been some time since I've encountered so self-serious a piece of work that actually seems this spurious

And at least her medic's trajectory possesses some logic of its own, which is more than can be said for the unashamedly radiant Marion Cotillard, here playing a physician-as-world-traveller who is taken captive in the line of professional duty only to learn to love the environs that have been forced upon her. Cotillard's fate would seem to amount to a casebook study in Stockholm Syndrome that the film seems not fully to comprehend, or maybe it's just that there are only so many afflictions a single narrative can take.

I'm not quite sure what point Contagion is actually trying to make, beyond adding to the feeling that humankind is essentially doomed on which, paradoxically, feel-good Hollywood has always thrived. (Once upon a time, earthquakes or towering infernoes were destined to decimate us, before it turned to general weather patterns, Aids, terrorists and heaven only knows what else.) A few of the wrinkles to the plot hint at a vaguely cautionary leitmotif, which is to say that one ought to be doubly careful of people who play around because of what (whom?) they might be picking up en route. On the other hand, isn't that merely the oldest trope in the book, on this occasion merely polished to an especially high, pharmaceutically panicked gloss?

Soderbergh is too visually arresting a talent not to effect intriguing variations on the clamour generated by galloping panic juxtaposed against the eeriness of public spaces - airports, restaurants, streets - emptied out by fear. (London had a mini-taste of the latter the night after the riots in the capital, when I travelled home from the theatre in what felt very much like a ghost town.) And the film-maker attempts a momentum matched nowhere by the script in a sequence of images stamped with the number of days that the virus has dealt its fatal blows, a device that comes to a cunning resolution at the far-from-reassuring end.

Disturbing, but for different reasons, is the gap-toothed fury of Jude Law, cast as an Antipodean-sounding journalist by the unlikely name of Krumwiede (!) who faces off against the voice of officialdom that is Laurence Fishburne, the latter playing a physician put on trial rather more for his morality than for his medical acumen. What with the globe-spanning accents sported both by Law and by Winslet, the latter in fiercely (albeit doomily) American mode, the film bears out in aural terms the global village suggested by its plot, so much so that one wonders why they didn't just go the distance and cast Cotillard as a Cockney.

Matt Damon (pictured above) does well as a softly spoken Midwesterner who tries to retain some sanity even as his family threatens to succumb around him, though the wispiest of subplots involving his teenage daughter's romantic fortunes is too silly to count for much. Indeed, it's been some time since I've encountered so self-serious a piece of work that actually seems this spurious and insubstantial once the belligerent theatrics fall away. On the other hand, I did happen to be seated near the one person at the screening who was coughing intermittently throughout the film. Anyone happen to know who - or how - he is?

Watch the trailer for Contagion

This is the most peculiarly selective pestilence to come down the cinematic pike in many a long year

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