Exam is a 2009 British independent thriller written and directed by Stuart Hazeldine based on the play The Grönholm method by Jordi Galcerán. The film never managed to get a theatrical release outside of the UK but was screened in several film festivals.
Describing this film can be difficult without giving too much away. This film is best enjoyed with as little knowledge about its plot, characters and setting. As the poster above describes it, 80 minutes, 8 candidates, 1 answer, no question then followed by the tagline ‘How far would you go to win the ultimate job?’ Now, let’s leave it at that and I’m sure you’ll enjoy this film even more. If by now this simple synopsis has piqued your interest and curiosity, then you may stop reading and grab this film because I’ll be spoiling some things along the way. In fact, don’t watch the trailer at all.
Exam feels a bit familiar if you’ve seen similar ‘strangers trapped in a room’ films such as Vincenzo Natali’s gripping ‘Cube’. There’s even a similar Japanese film involving high school students taking an exam. Granted, this may not be an original premise-8 applicants vie for a coveted job but has to go through one last major hurdle, one that will test the very limits of their sanity and humanity. The characters here don’t even have names and are simply referred to as White, Dark, Blonde, Brunette, Brown, Black, Chinese girl, Deaf, Guard, and the Invigilator. In fact, there is only ONE setting in this film and the whole 100 minutes takes place in one room.
Now films like this can either work or not. For the most part, this film works. The sense of tension, danger and distrust is very palpable as the characters find ways to outmaneuver, and outwit the other applicants. Once in a while, clues are given as to the background of each of the applicants, and the characters are given enough time to develop though ultimately character development still leaves a lot to be desired. Now, what doesn’t work here is the overly long climax and denouement. When the final twist and revelation is revealed, a lot of viewers will undoubtedly be disappointed. Exam features an incredibly fantastic build-up, piling one riveting revelation to another only to have that build-up fizzle when the final act begins. It doesn’t destroy the film but it squanders whatever good potential this film had. Despite these flaws, Hazeldine and co. still managed to make a fascinating film that’s deeper than most films of this kind.
The acting here is quite a mixed bag. Some deliver and some don’t. The inconsistencies aren’t that noticeable but they can be annoying at times. Look out for oddly spoken lines, blank facial expressions, and flat acting from some of the characters.
Exam’s cinematography effectively captures the sense of claustrophobia. The foreboding walls, the dark corners, the dim lighting and even the minimalistic set pieces all give a sense of being trapped in a room. The ambient score fits the mood well without being intrusive. Overall, this has the trappings of an independent film: minimal and moody.
Exam is a truly enthralling film. One critic described it as “the apprentice goes to hell” which is a very apt metaphor. Clocking at just under 100 minutes, it won’t take too much of your time either though this could have been easily reduced further with better editing especially in the final act. Despite its flaws, Exam is still a very taut, and intelligent thriller that’s worth a watch.