Director – Colum Eastwood – 2021 – Ireland – Cert. 15 – 90m
A black market Belfast anaesthetist finds herself crossing people it would be unwise to cross – this edge-of-the-seat thriller is out on digital platforms on Monday, July 12th
Jo (Antonia Campbell-Hughes from Bright Star, Jane Campion, 2009; Albert Nobbs, Roderigo Garcia, 2011; Kelly + Victor, Kieran Evans, 2012; Storage 24, Johannes Roberts, 2012; The Canal, Ivan Cavanagh, 2014;) drives her car up the levels of a Belfast multi-storey car park. At the top, she gets out and contemplates the drop to the street below. She smokes to calm her nerves. She drops the cigarette, watching it fall the several storeys. She contemplates climbing the railings. A woman and child come out of a door and walk along a wall. Jo backs off.
By this point, I’m completely hooked. Who is this woman? What is going on? The genius of this movie is that having gripped the viewer from the get-go, it never relaxes for the rest of its entire 90 minute running length. (Also, a minor carp: why is the car number plate PIA 1? That’s a wee bit too showy.)
Then Stevie (Lalor Roddy from Robot Overlords, Jon Wright, 2014) phones. “Get here quick.” When Jo arrives, she must operate on an injured man to save his life. The successful procedure is watched by Sean (John Connors) who is on the phone immediately after. “She seems solid.”
Stevie is worried about her and suggests a drink, but instead Jo heads to the marina, punches the entryphone code and visits Richard (Keith McErlean) to spend the night on his boat.
The subsequent surprises and plot twists come thick and fast. Stevie sends her to meet some people for a prospective job, telling her it could be a good deal and warning her that these people are powerful and not to be crossed. A big house on a large estate. She meets a young woman named Lucy (Julie Lamberton) who describes herself as “a nine on a scale of one to dead.” She meets the mother Murphy (Orla Brady from The Luzhin Defence, Marleen Gorris, 2000; Star Trek: Picard TV series, creators Kirsten Beyer, Michael Chabon, Akiva Goldsman, 2020) who insists she join her for a whisky and come outside for a smoke.
She hasn’t yet met Áine (Amybeth McNulty) the woman upstairs, who is about to leave the premises via the window of her upstairs room. Or the Murphy family’s Doctor Kilvenny (Sasha Rami) who will later describe himself to Jo as “just a couple of shades darker than you.”
For the sake of not giving any spoilers away, that’s as much plot outline as I’m going to reveal. The piece is well cast and efficiently directed, but what really makes it work is its clever, character-driven script which, as already noted, piles on the surprises at every conceivable turn. Indeed, its opening image of a woman driving her car round and round as she goes up the levels of a multi-storey car park, is at once banal (we’ve all been there), unfamiliar (we’ve never seen this in a movie, never mind in an opening shot) and intriguing (is this a metaphor for climbing a social ladder – or for something else?)
As it turns out, Jo has a history. She was deeply affected by the death of her daughter Megan who died aged 13. A trained anaesthetist, her current employment situation has been forced upon her by being stuck off the register. Her patients appear to be outside the law (people suffering from violent, bloody wounds needing immediate attention, pregnant women wanting an abortion). The setting is a few years back, in the period before abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland on Thursday, October 22nd, 2019 – mobile phones feature heavily, mainly using texting with someone streaming a live video of someone held prisoner at one point.
In addition, as if that wasn’t enough, there’s a fascinating moral / ethical dimension here. Bernadette Murphy is clearly financially well off, and with that wealth comes freedom. She also has a terminally ill daughter. When she asks Jo what she would have done to save her own daughter, Jo’s reply is, “anything.” That is Bernadette Murphy’s response too, but with money presenting no object her “anything” involves some highly dubious moral choices which Jo ultimately rejects. ‘Do No Harm’ runs the film’s slogan, cleverly echoing the content of the Hippocratic Oath and succinctly capturing Jo’s dilemma.
Hitchcock would have been impressed both with the opening and, indeed, the whole thing. There’s a commendable economy to the writing. The characters are swiftly and deftly sketched while the utterly convincing dénouement will keep the viewer constantly if wrongly guessing what’s coming next. Lean, taut, edge of the seat stuff. This deserves much better than its straight to streaming release. See it.
Black Medicine is out on digital platforms in the UK on Monday, July 12th.
Both trailer and clip are commendably spoiler-free. Not an easy task with this particular film. Kudos to whoever was responsible.
Clip | Starring Antonia Campbell-Hughes and Amybeth McNulty: