One of three 2014 Kristen Stewart films that seemed designed to shift her image out of Twilight territory and into something with a bit more actorly grunt, Camp X Ray works better as brand realignment than as drama.
The other two were Clouds of Sils Maria and Still Alice, the first a Juliette Binoche arthouse flick, the other stars Julianne Moore as an English professor with early onset dementia. In both Stewart was second billing to a major league dramatic actor and metaphorically sat at the feet of the star and took notes.
She didn’t have to do it. At the time she was one of the highest paid actress in the world (Forbes says number eight, having been number one in 2012). Here, though similar considerations are in play – this is a low-budget movie by a debuting director – she’s undoubtedly the star, playing Cole, a rookie private assigned to Guantanamo Bay.
There, flint-faceted Cole develops a friendship with one of the detainees (not “prisoners” she informs fellow rookie Rico early on, otherwise the Geneva Convention would apply to the detainees’ treatment), a garrulous, intelligent and sensitive man whose crimes are never enumerated.
Playing the Islamic detainee Ali, who we’ve seen snatched from his home, cuffed, hooded and transported by plane, boat and truck to Gitmo eight years before Cole has even turned up, is Payman Maadi.
Cole first meets Ali when she’s on library duty, and she and the prisoner (sorry, detainee) start discussing books. He likes both Emily Dickinson and Harry Potter (no mention of the Twilight books). Here, and in almost all of their later scenes together, the film is fabulous. Essentially a fraught chamber piece, it’s about two people edging warily towards each other, testing boundaries, trading tiny scraps of emotion, with Maadi and Stewart clearly actors on the same “less is more” register.
The camera is fabulous too, right in their faces on either side of a pane of glass, to catch the nuances of this transactional micro-drama.
As Cole becomes closer to Ali, she moves further away from her fellow US soldiers, notably Corporal Ransdell (Lane Garrison), a jockish asshole with scant regard for the dignity of the detainees, with Randsdell eventually taking action to prevent the relationship going any further. It is a prison, after all.
We’re on course for a great film. But hang on… is Ali guilty of something? He’s a Muslim, though not a particularly devout one, and we learn that he was living in Bremen, Germany, before being subjected to extraordinary rendition. He seems like a nice man, but as a passing reference to Hannibal Lecter has already established, a few charming interchanges between an authority figure and a man in a cell can be misleading.
Without more knowledge about Ali, this is a film about a soldier getting friendly with someone and then getting pissed off when her job as his jailer gets in the way. Which is fine as far as it goes, but given that we’re in Guantanamo Bay, one of the most contentious sites of detention in recent decades, I expected more than just a bit of personal pique.
Talking of which, I don’t know much about Guantanamo Bay, aka Camp X Ray, but the regime does seem to be majorly benign – the food’s a bit pedestrian, and they will force-feed you if you refuse to eat, but on the whole the prisoners are left alone, there is no torture, not even a mild interrogation.
It’s all a bit vanilla. Allied to the “Is that it, really?” aspect of Cole’s personal drama this is a great shame, because the acting by Stewart and Maadi has been both subtle and intense (the support players pretty damn good too) with director Peter Sattler keeping a grip on the dynamics until things get away from him in a speechy last act.
Still, it helps move our heroine – increasingly smoky-eyed and rosy-lipped as Camp X Ray winds to a teary conclusion – out of K-Stew territory and into more adult regions.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020