Berlin Syndrome movie review: Teresa Palmer’s performance will imprison you, and you’ll want it
Director - Cate Shortland
Cast - Teresa Palmer, Max Riemelt
Rating - 2/5
“What happens when you get to know someone?” asks Claire, in bed, stroking Andi’s stubbled face. He gazes at her, lost for a moment, in thought, and replies, “You see all their ugliness.”
But Claire doesn’t know him yet. She met him just two days ago, at a street crossing in Berlin, where, seeing a lost backpacker, he offered directions and strawberries. They hit it off. He asked her to come over, and they drove, their charged journey coming to an end at a rather rough looking neighbourhood. There was graffiti on the walls, reflected in puddles of mud, illuminated by flickering streetlights.
Upstairs, in Andi’s sparse apartment, there’s a futon on the floor, and an impressive rack of books on the wall. Both these bits of information seem to confirm to Claire – and us – what we have been told about Andi: That he is a high school English teacher. No reason to panic.
But there is. When he leaves for work the next day, he ‘forgets’ to keep the spare key on the dresser like he said he would. Claire’s locked in. What’s more, she can’t manage to get the windows to open. And the day after that, the key he does leave behind turns out to be the wrong one. And the windows, she learns, as she hurls a chair at them, seem to have been reinforced.
Suddenly, our worst fears are confirmed. All that talk about people being ugly on the inside has taken new meaning. His rancid apartment, and his hollow eyes seem to say just one thing: “I am a kidnapper, and a creep, and a rapist. You are my prisoner now. No one can hear your cries for help. If you try to escape, I will kill you.”
Berlin Syndrome, and most movies about kidnapping, by their very nature, already have the audience on their side – no one enjoys watching innocent young women being held against their wishes by monstrous men. Every time our plucky protagonist attempts an escape, we root for her. Every time she manages to get a message out, or her signals for help are seen, we cheer her on. So now, it’s up to the movie to build on this already established goodwill.
Berlin Syndrome is rather hit or miss at this task. Obviously, I’d never expected it to be anything near as great as Room, that masterpiece which won Brie Larson her Oscar, but to expect it to have the thrills of something like The Disappearance of Alice Creed (starring Gemma Arterton), couldn’t be too much to ask, could it?
As it turns out, it could. Not only does Berlin Syndrome go for the emotional punch of Room, it also wants to appeal to B-movie fans by never missing an opportunity to undress Teresa Palmer, and then take Polariods of her against her will.
And then, there’s the tricky task of making Stockholm Syndrome seem less off-putting than it always ends up being. As the weeks turn into months, and Claire becomes more accustomed to her life, even as she routinely finds evidence that suggests she isn’t the first girl Andi’s done this with, the plot begins taking needlessly abstract detours. There’s an especially cringe-worthy scene involving an accordion. Dare I say it, even Imtiaz Ali’s Highway, which has one of the most colossally misguided tones – and third acts – in recent memory, managed to convey the slow psychological paradox of being in a relationship with your kidnapper more palatable.
Teresa Palmer is really good in it though. She does an excellent job of conveying the contrast of emotions raging inside her head – the confusion, the fear, the anger, and the sheer will to survive. It’s a performance sorely in need of a more ambitious story.