Coming on like Cube meets The Apprentice, Exam brings together eight disparate people candidates for an unspecified high-powered job who find themselves undertaking an exam with a difference.
Getting a job can often be a bastard. The forms, the interviews, the questions, the ruthless socio-psychological test where you’re pitted against other contenders in a clinical Kubrickian room under the beady eyes of a scarily blank-faced, gun-wielding guard. You know the sort of thing... Perhaps this is the future. It is certainly a version of it, with writer/director Stuart Hazeldine setting his story “soon”, as an opening subtitle tells us. Right now, in these credit-crunched times, people are desperate for work. But what about next year, next decade? If it came down to it, what would you do for a job — say, if someone put a gun to your head?
It is, appropriately enough, a question with no simple answer. And there are no simple answers in Exam, though there’s a message if you care to look for it. This is a modern morality tale in the sleek guise of a sci-fi-tinged thriller. The setting is modest, the ambition is big. Of course, it’s simple to stick eight characters in a room: it keeps the budget down, it saves on petrol. But it’s also incredibly difficult to grip an audience with such a situation and attempts often become, at best, performance pieces better suited to the stage (hello, 44 Inch Chest). It’s to Hazeldine’s credit, then, that though Exam doesn’t leave these four walls, it never feels theatrical. Claustrophobic but agile, its pulsing, pristine visuals pound up the pressure. Once Colin Salmon’s invigilator sets the task, what follows is a fascinating battle of wits, as the candidates collaborate and conflict. And just when you’re wondering what the hell they can do next, another surprise is waiting in the wings.
A story like this works with an all or no-star cast and it has, almost, the latter. Only Jimi Mistry is well-known and he doesn’t unbalance things, thanks to his smart, see-sawing character. There are a few creaky turns elsewhere, compensated for by the emotional centre provided by Pollyanna McIntosh, as ‘Brunette’, and the charismatic Luke Mably, as ‘White’. As the wideboy who gives the candidates their pseudonyms, Mably somehow provides a sense of soul beneath the swagger, making this bully both abhorrent yet somehow empathetic. Quite how he does it is, well, another question entirely.
An assured debut feature with a superb performance from Luke Mably it makes The Apprentice look like Blue Peter.