Exam (Stuart Hazeldine, 2009): UK

Reviewed by Jason Patton at The Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

There is a point in Stuart Hazeldine’s Exam where we can’t figure out if the characters are good people or bad people. One minute they are wiling to sacrifice morals and potentially lives to get ahead, and the next minute they are protecting a new set or morals and different lives. Exam tests these characters by pushing them to their every limit, and the audience is almost forced to do the same.

Exam brings 8 candidates seeking a prestigious job into the final interview process, stuck in a closed-off room with only a sheet of paper ahead of them. The rules the Invigilator lay out are simple: there is 1 question before the applicants and 1 answer is required; you cannot leave the room; you cannot communicate with the Invigilator or the armed guard in the room; and you cannot ruin your paper, intentionally or accidentally. With 80 minutes on the clock, we learn that the paper is blank and suddenly the search for the answer becomes a search for the question.

Intriguing and thrilling, Exam immediately creates a sense of imprisonment. We watch every second of the 80 minutes, yet we never leave the room and we never learn the character’s names. Instead, they are given nicknames according to skin or hair color by an arrogant and competitive candidate named White (Luke Mably). Slowly but surely, the candidates decide to work as a team to discover the question, and then leave the answer to each person individually.

Exam isn’t gratuitously action-packed and it isn’t agonizingly slow. It is a well-paced, methodical unveiling of only the minimum information both the characters and the audience need. Dark (Adar Beck) speculates as to the hiring company’s intention with the winning candidate, while trying to keep a secret hidden. Black (Chukwudi Iwuji) has his own motivations for getting the job and struggles with how much of his integrity and compassion he is willing to sacrifice in order to be hired. These are just examples of what Exam really is: a microscopic look at varying personalities under extreme duress.

Stuart Hazeldine films Exam brilliantly and meticulously. Every single shot and every single detail is there for a reason and it is my belief that this movie will take multiple viewings before everything will stand out. The characters fight for a job, and the audience fights for understanding. Hazeldine does a terrific job of keeping us on edge the entire time, waiting for any taste of new knowledge or hopefully relief.

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