Gabriel Lenard (Cosmo Jarvis), one of the two central characters in writer/director Tom Lawes’ crime drama Monochrome, experiences the world very differently from most people. Gabe has synesthesia, a neurological condition that affects his sensory perception; he can hear colors, for example, and numerals trigger sensory associations for him that other people are blind to. It makes him a brilliant criminal investigator, precisely because he can perceive and intuit things at a crime scene that, for his incredulous colleagues, simply aren’t there to be found.
Ironically, to fully appreciate Monochrome might require viewers to have a perspective similar to Gabe’s. There’s a lot of fascinating stuff hidden just beyond the margins of what’s onscreen, but those who are unable to see it are likely to be left fairly frustrated by what’s there on the surface.
The film pits Gabe, a rookie recruit of the newly formed British Crime Agency, against a serial killer who’s preying on the greediest and most loathsome of England’s wealthy elite. Monochrome, however, isn’t a whodunit, and in fact, about half of the movie’s running time is devoted to the murderer and her progression from (mostly) innocent victim to calculating executioner. She’s Emma (Jo Woodcock), the much-younger girlfriend of a dirt bag financial hotshot (Steve Johnson) who’s at the center of a national scandal involving millions in stolen pension funds. Wanted for questioning, Emma flees to the countryside, where she finds herself in the employ of a cantankerous celebrity artist (James Cosmo) who quickly discovers her identity and blackmails her into being his personal slave. Unwilling to play Cinderella for the heartless, well-heeled old coot, Emma bumps him off, and, when the next set of rich folks who employ her as a housekeeper turn out to be just as awful as he was, she turns “murdering affluent assholes” from a one-time thing into a career. Gabe quickly picks up her trail, but his fellow BCA agents have little tolerance for his methods, and he finds few allies in his struggle to track Emma down.
“Gabe has synesthesia, a neurological condition that affects his sensory perception; he can hear colors and numerals trigger sensory associations…”
There are certainly a lot of juicy ideas implied by that plot description, and both Gabe and Emma are characters rife with compelling complications – the setup, in a lot of ways, is as intriguing as it gets. Too often, though, Monochrome plays out in workmanlike fashion, never really capitalizing on the most gripping aspects of its story. It’s an exceptionally well-acted, good-looking, competently directed movie that nevertheless falters at being engaging viscerally or intellectually, even though it contains all the elements that might make for a cracking thriller – and one with some weighty sociopolitical subtext, to boot.
A lot of the film’s issues arise from its pacing and structure, as it shifts back-and-forth between Gabe and Emma’s storylines in the lead-up to their inevitable climactic confrontation. Both narrative threads take a while to get going, and, worse, Emma’s sequences are marred by their repetitiveness; the pattern of her getting a job in the home of some insufferable rich person, becoming fed up with their disregard for others, and orchestrating their killings starts to feel familiar awfully quickly.
Things do pick up somewhat in the film’s second half as Gabe and Emma’s orbits draw closer together, but even then, there’s a curious lack of tension and suspense to the proceedings, and the film seems oddly reluctant to put either character into a situation that he or she can’t rather easily resolve. There are a few clever scenes of cross-cutting chronologically between Emma perpetrating one of her crimes and Gabe investigating in its aftermath, but although they provide some needed energy, very little that we see of either the murders or the detective work feels particularly inventive or surprising.
“…clever scenes of cross-cutting chronologically between Emma perpetrating one of her crimes and Gabe investigating in its aftermath…”
All of this is especially disappointing considering how unique both of these characters are – and how good the film’s two extremely well-cast leads are at portraying them. It isn’t hard to imagine either Gabe or Emma, played by the same people, as a strong single protagonist in a movie that’s able to place the focus squarely on him or her, but by splitting itself so evenly between the two of them, Monochrome is never able to fully explore either one. The film is forced to basically shorthand their respective quirks and complexities and histories in various ways – the worst of which being the unnecessary voiceover narration that both characters are afforded – and our overall impressions of them end up feeling incomplete because of it.
And yet, the fact that Monochrome‘s characters, its subtexts, and even its plot devices (for example, the particulars of synesthesia or the creation of a federal British law-enforcement agency) are all worthy of serious discussion make the film feel like an ambitious missed opportunity rather than an unoriginal or un-thoughtful piece of work. There are ideas here, and good ones, at that, but the way they’re presented makes the movie more interesting to think about than it is to actually watch.
Monochrome (2018) Written and directed by Tom Lawes. Starring Jo Woodcock, Cosmo Jarvis, James Cosmo, Patrice Naiambana, Liz May Brice, Lee Boardman.
5 out of 10