Estranged is a very special type of movie, it’s a type I’ve watched before but are often few and far between. It transcends genre, and finds its way eventually into almost all types of movies. This is the type of movie that, at the end, leaves you feeling as if you yourself have done something wrong. By being a willing participant in the events that transpire through watching them unfold, you are actively acknowledging that this is happening and you are doing nothing to stop it. Of course there is nothing you can do, but you still feel just as dirty at the end as the characters do. – 3.3/5 (genre)
Estranged is a very, very, very slow burn. I feel like that should be emphasized as much as possible, because while it has it’s moments it moves at such an agonizingly slow pace through the first half or more of the movie that even my attention began to wane. This wasn’t because the story wasn’t interesting, or even because I didn’t care about the main character, but simply that the movie was like a Corvette on ice, spinning its wheels and going absolutely nowhere. I try with all my will power to avoid reaching for a mobile device while watching a movie because I want to give it my full attention, but I have to admit there were moments where I just needed to pass the time until the movie decided move forward a bit. Then I came back.
With that being said however, when the movie does turn it turns hard, and it turns gruesome. Not in the a bloody or gory way but in a harsh and psychologically scarring way. The nonchalance with which the “family” does some things that are just unthinkable is chilling on its own, and that’s not even the actually events transpiring. For some people I think the last half hour or so will be hard to watch, if not down right unwatchable because of disturbing nature of what we are witnessing. It’s certainly not the worst thing, or most horrifying thing I’ve seen in a movie, but when placed in the context of a potential real life situation it gets pretty close. And hence the feeling that you’ve done something horrible yourself by watching all this unfold. It is a special type of writing and acting that can make this happen, and in the end it all comes together for Estranged to pull it off.
So all of that intro and no description of what the movie is about. Estranged is about a woman named January (Amy Manson) or Jan who is living abroad with her boyfriend Callum (Simon Quarterman) when they have an accident on a scooter. Jan suffers brain damage and loses all of her memories prior to the accident, as well as being unable to walk (though this is not permanent). Callum takes care of her for four months in the hospital before Jan finally returns home, with Callum, to her family. They arrive at a large house where they are greeted by a butler, Thomas. Of course Callum is amazed as his parents had no money and he comes from a poor childhood. The rising question then becomes, why did Jan leave in the first place and stay away for six years?
As Jan meets the family she remembers none of them, all of her memories are gone and are unlikely to ever return. There is the father Albert (James Cosmo), mother Marilyn (Eileen Nicholas), brother Laurence (James Lance) and sister Kathrine (Nora-Jane Noone). Jan remembers none of them but they remember her, and it is immediately obvious that they are unhappy with Jan and unsympathetic to her condition, still blaming her for things she can’t remember. Albert tries to pay Callum to go away and he refuses, but then one morning when Jan wakes up he is gone and Albert tells her he offered him a deal and he took it, leaving her behind. She doesn’t believe him but there is no way to communicate with the outside world as the phone is disconnected from non-payment and apparently no one here has a cell phone.
As I said the movie is a slow burn and even after this turn of events it takes its time getting to where its going to go. Eventually Jan, after what is seemingly at least several months if not a year, recovers her ability to walk and then discovers something that tells her that she needs to get out. She makes an attempt to get away and from here the movie turns pretty grim, with some rather horrible things that happen. I won’t get into the details of it as that’s for everyone to see for themselves if they want, but be forewarned that for some it may be extremely upsetting and other even triggering.
The acting is overall well done. Each member the cast successfully plays there part with conviction and convincingly, right down to Laurence and his disturbing attitude towards his sister Jan. The actors captured the eerie and unsettling atmosphere and brought it even more to life. It wasn’t the greatest of the great, but not everything needs to be, an actor simply being what the movie needs them to be and a bit more can really make a movie. Amy Manson did an excellent job playing January, and I thought did very well with convincing us that she indeed had no memory of the family or the home she grew up in. Her apprehension to fear to just plain psychosis transition was very fluid and natural, with Amy providing the strong support needed by the story to make it happen. The remaining actors are solid, though their characters could have been fleshed out just a bit more, and it’s obvious that they weren’t because the writer was holding back to keep the “secret”. I would just like to say that the secret wasn’t much of a secret after about the half hour mark, and I really wish that everyone would have gotten more depth. January’s transition could have been even more powerful were there more time dedicated to the post reveal true horror/suspense portion of the movie. Despite this, I felt like everyone was believable and good solid support for a rather well crafted story.
So the biggest complaint is that the movie was such a slow burn. Don’t get me wrong, I like movies that take their time and build up the suspense, leaving you nearly on the edge of your seat as you desperately want whatever is going to happen to happen so you can breathe. But the story in Estranged took it just a little too far. It’s a tough row to hoe, keeping a movie in a state of suspense with information coming in drips and keeping your audience. Most of the time movies manage to hang on to their audience by just a thread, however thin, but Estranged pushed just a little too hard and lost me for a bit. The story began to seem as if it were going to be stuck in limbo forever, with no real movement in sight. So much so that as I said before I actually began looking things up on my tablet (something I don’t do while watching a movie, talking to people etc…). If it could have just dialed it back a little and allowed the reveal to happen sooner, even by a few minutes I don’t think it would have lost me. Fortunately, when things pick up it sucks you back in with a vengeance and suddenly it feels like you’re on a roller coaster with no control.
There are moments early on, where Jan has flash backs to her childhood as she sits at a piano. The memories are portrayed wonderfully; they are stuttered, disjointed and feel a bit like a needle on a record player skipping about. They have an ethereal quality to them that makes them fun to watch even as they don’t make a lot of sense.
Sadly, these don’t stay around long and they dissipate into the ether that they were living in, leaving us with the grounded slow moving story. More elements like these flashbacks would also have alleviated the loss of interest factor, and made for a much more fun first half of the movie to watch. And so I give great credit to the implementation of the flashbacks, but also am greatly disappointed that they would even be there at all if they weren’t going to play any significant role later on.
The ending of Estranged is rather good. At twelve minutes to go I began to wonder how this was going to end as there was no pretext suggesting which way it would go. However, what we end up with is a gruesomely satisfying ending that leaves us feeling like we’ve got just as much blood on our hands as they do. Estranged pulls off what should be horrifying violence to us as satisfying relief, and for this I have to commend it. Based on the first half hour I would never have guessed that the ending could be done this well. There are of course some questions remaining, but overall this wrapped up nicely. Again, Amy played January wonderfully in the last scene with Marilyn, giving her a detached but still caring feeling.
Overall, I’d say that Estranged is worth watching if you are in need of a suspense/horror movie and want something that is at least satisfying in the end. It may prove a bit of a chore to push through the first half, but it’s worth it for the white knuckling you’ll have to do as you move through the final parts. Don’t take this to mean that it really “speeds” up, in fact it continues to move at a steady pace, it just does so in a rather disturbing way.
Overall: 3.3/5 (genre)