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The Hole (2001)
Director: Nick Hamm

review by Richard Bowden

According to the account of the only survivor, four English students were persuaded to spend a few days in a disused bunker. When a promised rescue failed to materialise, panic and violence set in. Meanwhile a dark plan becomes evident.

There's a vacuum in The Hole which is a shame, as otherwise this is a respectable and fairly absorbing thriller. The gap, into which all eventually fall, is between script and execution. Trailed almost as a subterranean Blair Witch Project, this film is in fact a tale of obsessive love and public school angst set, literally, in the depths of the English countryside.

Given that most of its most dramatic developments occur in an enclosed darkened environment, it is ironic that some of the film's best moments occur when the camera and the eye are free to dwell on sunny exteriors. In the opening sequence, as Liz stumbles back to Braemorton her personal dislocation chills us, occurring as it does within a familiar, stable (albeit deserted) location. Her disorientation is unnerving because it is so abrupt, out of place in the comforting halls of academia. As if to emphasise this an extended aerial shot places her ultimate collapse, lost in a reassuring landscape of school and chapel. As the camera circles the buildings, the authorities gather below. We watch happenings with a degree of anxiety, inevitably wondering about the confinement and darkness of the promised 'hole'. What does it signify and how has it led to this? Unfortunately nothing that follows quite justifies this sense of dread, which dissipates quickly.

At the heart of The Hole is Liz (Thora Birch). As circumstances change and revelations continue, Birch has to portray increasing duplicity and guile as a character, which, frankly, often seems beyond her. As Jane in American Beauty (1999), Birch proved a provocative siren at the centre of events, whose illicit sexual appeal generated much of the tension. In contrast to that earlier role, now she is a little chubbier and presented less flatteringly. Crucially she has the hard job of internalising blind sexuality and desire to a point where it can only gradually become apparent, while retaining at least some of the viewer's sympathy. Liz has to be a romantic loser and then cruel winner. The balancing of allure and dowdiness is always a difficult one, and unfortunately Birch is only partially successful. Part of the blame can be put on the script. It attempts to lay abnormal psychology (hinted at by the early Psycho shot of the hair dye running down the plug hole) onto a moonstruck adolescent, but without preparing much of the way. Instead of spelling it out, the plot relies too heavily upon a strong, suggestive performance by the principal. The end result is perfunctory and two-dimensional, although fairly compulsive. As Liz's character moves forward she leaves us behind. For instance, one feels far more for Liz's awkward embarrassment when she becomes a blonde for Mike at the beginning of the film, than when she blithely confesses her love for him at the end while Frankie vomits in the bunker.

This shallowness at the heat of the film can pitch things into bathos, as in Mike's ludicrous upbraiding of Liz "I killed my best friend - for a Coke!" Worse, it means that Liz's plaintive speech to Mike, when she feels she finally has won him "I need you, I love you..." while a convincing statement of her overriding obsession is accompanied at this late stage by very little sympathy by us.

As other commentators have pointed out, it would have made very little difference if the main action of this film were set in a hole, a car or a locked wardrobe. The film is not really about a group dynamic while under stress, or the fatal attraction of a particular place (although elements of this are highlighted, obviously), but the cruel effects of a blind obsession placed in proximity. Apart from some token recriminations there is little drama behind the enforced confinement of the cast. Despite Geoff's vivid description of a slow death, there is no real sense of impending doom or horror. The bunker is hardly explored or tested and, rather surprisingly, contains running water and light. Once we know Liz has the key (both physically and plot-wise) to their ordeal, suspense naturally lags.

To be honest, the four stranded in the bunker (and Martin outside) are rather a boring crowd, bickering and morose. Even the prospect of rape is playfully sidestepped and very little social politicking occurs. Interestingly, Hamm's other films have included Dancing Queen (1993) in which a man is set adrift by friends after his stag night, marooned far up country with a stripper. The two gradually discover a mutual attraction and rediscover themselves. The protagonists in that, far more successful film, make far more of their encounter in isolation than Liz and Mike ever do here, Hamm being far more fortunate with his cast.

Having said all this, the present plot at least has the virtue of having no fantastic last minute twist to confound the viewer, increasingly the case in contemporary low budget thrillers. Liz's secrets are uncovered naturally in a dramatic structure that is intriguing and fairly compulsive, even if not especially convincing. If only more attention had been taken with casting and motivation, this would have been a hole really worth getting into.

previously published online, VideoVista #32
The Hole

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