CORDELIA – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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Co-written by and starring Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Adrian Shergold’s Cordelia kicks off as a tight, taut psychological thriller that, while still very much its own unique beast, has the specter of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion looming over it in ways that are neither subtle nor accidental. As the title character, Campbell-Hughes carries the film through an intense, restrained performance that explodes with emotional outbursts that disrupt the otherwise dominant sense of repression that governs her character. Beginning with an extraordinary dream sequence – well, nightmare sequence – a relatively banal tube trip home on London’s underground rail service is drenched in disorienting, dark vibes, cinematography, score and performance combining as Cordelia makes her way down a carriage, awaking in her bedroom deeply distressed, to be comforted by her twin sister and informal carer Caroline (also played by Campbell-Hughes).

The reasons for Cordelia’s trauma – and the shocking real-world events that triggered it – become apparent as the film progresses, but the film is less concerned with excavating that particularly shocking moment of recent history as it is drilling down deep into the psyche of a woman whose whole life changed over a decade earlier, her PTSD so paralyzing that moving on seems altogether out of the question. Things change, however, when her sister leaves for a weekend holiday away with her boyfriend (played by Joel Fry), leaving Cordelia to her own devices. Here, she meets her neighbor Frank (Johnny Flynn), a handsome cellist whose apartment is above hers. She is attracted to him, but soon finds increasing reasons to doubt his intentions.

Pivoting on a powerful performance by Campbell-Hughes, Cordelia belts along with a confident pacing, never too over the top but still engrossing enough to keep viewers engaged. Well, up to a point at least. Sadly, the momentum and steady hand that drives the film seems to completely vanish as the film reaches its climax, so much so that it feels like an entirely new director has come in and taken over at the last minute; the direction becomes nervous, the script clunky, and even the up-until-then solid acting starts to waver, hovering somewhere between camp melodrama and high school play. Which is a shame, because everything leading up to this point is the very opposite; it’s a strong film that becomes a much weaker one, sadly at the point that it needs it not to be.

Token cameos by Catherine McCormack, Michael Gambon and Fry do nothing but add some big name clout to the project, another indicator that perhaps this film is not as confident as we first may have thought. Cordelia has all the ingredients to be a truly great film, but at best, by the time the final credits run, it almost feels generous to even call it an even particularly good one.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).