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Taking back control
THE INVISIBLE MAN got caught in its mid-theatrical run by the closures of cinemas worldwide. Studios had no choice but to offer selected titles on streaming services. So, are high charges for rental with conditions justified? Camus samples the criminally unseen.
  '“It’s so clear for me,” Moss says, in between sips of coffee, in a spacious, echoing room in Soho Hotel. “You have an invisible presence – an ex-boyfriend – terrorising this woman who’s come out of an abusive relationship. How can that not be an analogy for gaslighting?” She speaks with the enthusiasm and directness of a Peggy Olson pitch in late-era Mad Men. “If you’re going to do The Invisible Man, that’s how you do it.”'
  Leading actress, Elisabeth Moss*


In 2016, there was a compelling dramatic sub-plot that reached its conclusion on the BBC’s longest running radio drama, The Archers, something of a national treasure on Radio 4. It concerned subtle and gross domestic abuse and was brilliantly played by both actors in the roles of Rob and Helen (Tim Watson and Louiza Patikas respectively). It hit a national nerve, and pulled sharply into focus the idea of psychological violence. It had me screaming at the radio in the car recognising the effect of well-chosen, hateful words, chipping away at any self-respect or any defence Helen may have been able to marshal. It didn’t end well (there was blood). The story gripped the nation in that it beautifully illustrated how someone’s behaviour could be so obvious to observers and yet so ambivalent to the person being controlled. It was like listening to someone building a weapon. Everyone realised what he was doing except for the person to whom the weapon was aimed. Rob’s subsequent ‘performance’ in front of a jury trying Helen for attempted murder apparently enraged listeners. His fabrications reached Trumpian heights of deception. I think this is precisely why I suffer from ‘Trump Derangement Syndrome’. I keep pointing at the bastard almost screaming apoplectically “Can you people not see why this man is so staggeringly unfit for office?” It’s like the entire Washington GOP strata suddenly decided that being in power was more important than their collective ethics. The only way is ethics…

And so to a clever adaptation folding in spousal abuse into the mix of H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man originally published in 1897. The original tale of Mr. Griffin is not a pleasant one but it has nothing to do with domestic violence. In fact, there seems to be one thin connecting thread between source novel and latest film and that’s your lot. That of course is the unseen nature of the protagonist. So how did 2019’s political climate inspire this rather smart take on an old tale? That probably has a lot to do with the #Metoo movement and underlined its intentions casting an actress who is more than proven in the role of battling female in the face of controlling males. Elisabeth Moss is clearly a very intelligent, talented and instinctive actress whose choice of roles reveals a political passion that’s borne out through drama rich in allegory and metaphor. It seems apt that she came to my attention as the president’s daughter in The West Wing, thankfully as far from Ivanka as any human could be. In Mad Men, she played the lone creative female Peggy gasping for air in a wholly male dominated atmosphere and achieved her professional potential because of her evident imagination and skill. This was recognised by the nominal head of the company/show, which was a small but significant win. She played the determined detective in Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake but really underlined her credentials of Queen of Peak TV playing Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale. The only reason I’m not up to date on that show was that, like Homeland after two seasons, it left its logic on the bus. It’s irrelevant to her work that she is a practising Scientologist but in an honest and unguarded moment that raised my eyebrows, I have to say that information shocked me. But let’s leave that in her private life and just love the work. It’s more of a failing in me that I find that particular ‘religion’ more galling than any of the others and of course it should be irrelevant to Moss’ tremendous output.

Eleizabeth Moss in The Invisible Man

In The Invisible Man (which is not ‘about’ an invisible man per se) she plays Cecilia, (or ‘Cee’ for short which I’ve only just realised is a rather adroit name for someone stalked by an invisible man). She’s an architect, the wife of a brilliant scientist, Adrian Griffin, who also happens to be a stultifying husband whose control of his wife borders on the sadistic. Or so we infer. There are no domestic scenes showing us his imagined ghastly behaviour. We start with a clearly anxious and desperate woman leaving her husband early in the morning in what is obviously a planned escape from a luxurious home. It doesn’t go well but she does get away. We have only seen her husband in action once, enough to understand why she needs to get out. With her sister as an accomplice, Cecilia hides up in a friend’s house with the added protection that her friend James is a very powerful man who’s also a cop. Problem is, as deep as this friendship goes, he’s not quite ready to go with the ‘invisible man’ hypothesis. Cecilia’s sister reports that Adrian has committed suicide. Yeah, oinks echo overhead. And so begins the inexorable slide into seeming madness as an invisible force slowly wrecks Cecilia’s life, which leads to tragedy and horror.

There are two aces up the sleeve of the director Leigh Whannell making an invisible man film and they are both oddly contradictory. The first is that any shot is by design suspenseful. Cecelia looks around a room. In that room, there may be an invisible presence and that’s damn scary right there. But the contradictory side of this is that something you can’t see (as a viewer) can’t really scare you. It can kill the leading character but for scary shocks, you really have to see as well as hear something. So invisible interaction (beating someone up, footsteps on bedclothes, paint emptied on the bad guy seen in the trailer) is how the film fulfils its scare quotient. It’s effective but perhaps too sparsely so. The entertainment value of the film is the believable psychological breakdown of its star and what she has to do to pay her charming husband back. There are one or two “Whoah!” moments which do elevate the narrative and keep you on your toes and while not an Avengers buster of blocks, it made relatively more money than any of the 300 million plus budget crowd by costing 7 and making almost 18 times that in its modest, shortened run. Avengers: Endgame would have to have make 6.4 billion to get a similar result. Its success doesn’t surprise me. Its really well performed, confidently directed and features a subtle, minimalist score by Zimmer’s go to partner, Benjamin Wallfisch. The supporting cast is excellent, in particular the disbelieving at first best friend James played by Aldis Hodge, and Cecilia’s sister Emily played by Harriet Dyer. As an interesting aside, the marketing settled on an image of vulnerable female (presumably naked in a shower) preyed on by an invisible man. The scene of the handprint on the stall glass is not only in the trailer, it’s the poster image. And the handprint shot is not even in the film! To be fair, Griffin was probably in Cecilia’s bathroom but he was, uh… invisible.

So, the big question for all of us ‘stuck-at-home’ entertainment seekers of the globe, is… is The Invisible Man worth £15.99 with the following conditions? You have thirty days to watch it (after which it presumably is made unavailable) and if you start watching it, you have 48 hours to finish it. The studios are taking a lot on faith here. A movie has its own cachet while it’s in the cinemas. The movie gods sort of protect it. I don’t think too much about paying for a seat and some popcorn and enjoying the ‘one chance to see on a big screen’ experience. But once home, the same film is somewhat downgraded. You are not paying for a big screen experience. You are paying premium prices for what will make it to Blu-ray and then be charged roughly the same again for ownership. Until relatively recently, I never had broadband speeds where I could trust streaming not to stutter and break up so I always went for physical media I could trust. Paying for a cinema seat is not equitable to simply watching the film. I also appreciate that the Hollywood Reporter worked out that this pandemic may cost the studios up to $20 billion… I am sympathetic. I work in the film business but the irony of the shutting down of the entertainment industry in a period where we need its productions more than ever is not lost on me. I just feel very odd paying for a big screen experience when I know that’s not what I’m getting. That said, The Invisible Man is a solid entry in the thriller genre and is worth… worth what exactly?


The Invisible Man poster
The Invisible Man

USA | Australia 2020
124 mins
directed by
Leigh Whannell
produced by
Jason Blum
Kylie Du Fresne
written by
Leigh Whannell
based on the novel by
H.G. Wells (uncredited)
Stefan Duscio
Andy Canny
Benjamin Wallfisch
production design
Alex Holmes
Elisabeth Moss
Oliver Jackson-Cohen
Harriet Dyer
Aldis Hodge
Storm Reid
Michael Dorman

uk distributor
Universal Pictures
UK release date
28 February 2020
review posted
16 April 2020

See all of Camus' reviews