Sydney Film Festival Review: Embedded (Australia, 2016)

Embedded fits nicely within the growing catalog of Australian films determined to prove our country has much more to offer the world of cinema than just koalas and beaches. Part erotic thriller, part political statement. Embedded revolves entirely around the relationship between disillusioned war correspondent Frank (Nick Barkla) and Madeline (Laura Gordon), the enigmatic woman he shares a night at an exotic hotel with.

Conceptually and aesthetically, the film keeps things simple. There’s something to be appreciated in that. After all, limitation breeds innovation and Embedded is nothing if not inventive. Stephen Sewell‘s direction, Adrian Powers’ editing and Rhiannon Bannenberg‘s cinematography combine to great effect, making the nocturnal encounter between Frank and Madeline feel isolated from the chaotic world below. Simply put, Embedded is dazzlingly stylish cinema.

Which is why it’s unfortunate that the other elements of the film fail to hit the same bar. Embedded was originally performed as a stageplay and there’s an underlying theatricality to the pacing that holds it back. Scenes often end and start abruptly and the dialog is all over the place.

Characters are often repeating themselves and speaking their mind in a way that would feel right at home on a stage but on a big screen comes across as unnecessarily performative and worse unconvincing. It doesn’t help that much of the early dynamic between Madeline and Frank involves the two lying to one another, making it hard to invest in either party.

It’s unclear if Frank is intended to be an blokey everyman (with the casual misogyny to match it), a journalist or just a man pretending to be someone he’s not. Likewise, it’s never clear what parts of Madeline are true or false and where her character’s allegiances lie. Though this ambiguity does the film some favors but, on the whole, it left the film somewhat unsatisfying to watch.

Embedded also suffers from disparate pacing. The film’s brief trips into Frank’s past as a war correspondent keep things simple but effective  but the main plot is less elegant. It often jumps back and forward in time from scene to scene, seemingly defusing any tension between its two leads.

The film’s efforts to build a coherent political statement come across as similarly muddled. Embedded can’t seem to decide if its central figures are a commentary on international politics or a critique of one. Frank’s obsession with breaking the machine that’s killing the world is a vivid notion but one painted with too broad a brush to invest in.

Despite all this, Embedded makes for a compelling watch. Stephen Sewell has succeeded on a cinematic level that’s really impressive for a first-time feature director, even if the scripts and performances don’t come together with the same elegance.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Embedded is screening at this year’s Sydney Film Festival You can find out more information about the film HERE.