Eight high-flyers - four men, and four women - are about to sit a corporate exam for an initially mysterious, but evidently very prestigious organisation. They file into a dismal, austere exam room where they are greeted by an equally austere exam invigilator, who reads them a set of rules once only before departing. They have 80 minutes to complete their paper to the best of their abilities and to prove their worth.

So far, we seem to be within reality TV territory, and no doubt the sly nods to The Apprentice are wholly intentional; we don't live a million miles way from these sorts of competitive set-ups or competitive types and indeed we're used to seeing them on screen. However, when the candidates come to look their papers over, they find they're entirely blank. They have been warned that any attempts to speak either to the invigilator via a camera set-up, or to the guard in the room, will void their applications. Spoiling their papers will also lead to them being forcibly ejected from the exam room - so, what to do? They have to work out what is being asked of them - against the clock. One enterprising candidate encourages them to think more carefully about the rules they have been given. They have not, after all, been forbidden from talking to each other. Nor have they been told not to work together to uncover the 'one question' they are meant to answer. Initially, the candidates agree to work together to ascertain what is going on but through the course of some well-paced, well-conceived interplay and dialogue, we find out that there is a lot at stake for each of them - and that the world outside the exam room is not quite our own.

During the opening scenes of Exam some very stylish shots introduce us to the protagonists of the piece, via close-ups of either them, or items belonging to them. All of these visual clues - which look similar to the shots which open the Dexter television series - are eventually seamlessly linked in to their character traits and indeed, a high point of the film as a whole is that the plot is very well-managed, taking something as simple as the exam invigilator's brief instructions and having the characters revisiting them, reconsidering them, and changing their group dynamics along the way. This considered approach to dialogue and action provides a slow-burn effect and some audience members may find themselves itching for more explosive action, but to my mind it is a worthwhile pay-off in order to enjoy well-paced and believable interaction between characters, characters which are versatile, coming to the fore or retreating from it throughout the film.

Speaking of believability, as someone currently running the gauntlet of job interviews I can testify to the bone-chilling authenticity of the jargon used here; Exam carefully establishes something which feels very familiar, and then introduces the suggestion that this is not set in a version of our reality, but somewhere rather more nightmarish - again, in a subtle fashion. The development of the idea of a world ravaged by a mysterious virus is one familiar to us, particularly as horror fans, but here, it is used to add to an atmosphere of unease rather than acting as a game-changer. There are no 28 Days Later-style 'Infected' here, but there are people trying to cope with an illness which is seriously undermining normal society.

As you might expect from a film with a narrow cast and a small set, the film is very dialogue-heavy - the plot is carried almost entirely by talking, and a lot of jobspeak at that, so that some people may feel unsympathetic, at least at first, towards this group of 'driven go-getters' in what is essentially a protracted team-building exercise - oh, the horror! A poorly written film of this type would have been agony to watch, so it is a great compliment to writers Simon Garrity and Stuart Hazeldine, as they have successfully crafted a slick and engaging screenplay here with characters which definitely develop throughout the film. My only gripes would be that the torture scene of one of the female characters - though implied, rather than realised - felt a little clumsy, and didn't rest easily with the style and tone of the rest of the film, and that the conclusion was rendered somewhat less effective than it might have been by having a lot of the contextualising science jammed into its few short minutes: in both of these cases, a nicely-building tension was set slightly off-balance by two rather differently-paced scenes. That is not to say, however, that some weaker moments are enough to scupper this well-made British thriller - they're certainly not. Exam is a very strongly written, character-driven film which generates a great deal of atmosphere from sticking to well-handled low-key elements.

The Sony DVD release offers several bonus features. A director/editor commentary is available, as well as a short (5 min) behind the scenes film, a film trailer and a photo gallery. There is also a number of interviews: Stuart Hazeldine talks about making the move from writer to director; producer Gareth Unwin talks about his decision to work on the project; the cast talk about their characters, including actor Jimi Mistry (yes, it is him who used to be a doctor on Eastenders!) and the director of photography Tim Wooster talks briefly about some of the challenges of his role.

The picture here is clear with good definition; the tones of the film alter throughout, as the characters are bathed variously in UV light, then infrared. The usual sound options of 5.1 Dolby Digital or 2.0 stereo are available.

Review by Keri O'Shea

Released by Sony
Region 2 - PAL
Rated 18
Extras :
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