When is a historically-based political thriller not a historically-based political thriller? When it only pretends to be one for twenty minutes or so before switching gears to become an action/drama about life inside a mysterious cult. This isn’t automatically a bad thing…
Lena (Emma Watson) is a stewardess who arrives in Chile for a few days of rest, relaxation, and time with her boyfriend, Daniel (Daniel Brühl). He came to Santiago several months earlier to assist the people in their protests against a harsh and unfair government, but when a military coup sends the city into chaos he and Lena find themselves trapped. He’s taken prisoner and sent to a remote camp called Colonia Dignidad, and while she’s free to leave for safer shores she instead stays in Chile intent on finding him.
Colonia Dignidad is, on its surface, a charity-based camp filled with people dedicating their lives to God through hard work, spartan living, and obedience to their leader, Paul Schäfer (Michael Nyqvist). That’s all true, but it’s also a cult where members are beaten, violated, and held against their will. No one has ever escaped before, and now Lena must willingly enter its grip if she ever wants to see Daniel again.
Colonia feels at first like a film and story in the vein of Costa-Gavras’ Missing or Pablo Larrain’s No, both dramas exploring the Augusto Pinochet regime through the eyes of those caught up in the oppressive madness, but director Florian Gallenberger and co-writer Torsten Wenzel are really only interested in that as a backdrop. The film quickly sheds that historically dramatic weight and becomes more of a generic thriller about escaping from a cult. The story retains a basis in the truth and still features some exciting beats, but it ultimately feels far from memorable.
Watson is front and center here as the dramatic core of the film, but while she gives a focused and stressed performance at times the script leaves her character hanging more than once. Lena is no spy or trained agent, but her entry into the camp and actions within seem far too simple. The camp is on lock-down and the men are armed, but she roams freely, spies through a window by standing directly in front of it, and willingly sets herself up to be beaten half to death on the off chance she can reconnect with Daniel. There’s a steady string of dumb decisions that seem to only work out thanks to an equal number of contrivances. Daniel fares a bit worse as his actions both before and after the coup leave viewers questioning just what she sees in him.
As unconvincing as some of the plot turns are though the camp itself offers its share of horrifying and unsettling moments. The sexes are kept apart, and is often the case with religiously-fueled cults the women bear the brunt of mistreatment. They’re dressed drably, beaten by male mobs under the pretense of spiritual cleansing, and verbally degraded on a regular basis. Schäfer appears to have a thing for little boys — a disturbing character trait to be sure — but it feels tossed in simply to drive home just how hypocritically evil the man is.
The production design succeeds in crafting an early ’70s Chile in the first act, but similar efforts in the camp itself are challenged by the script. The physicality of it is certainly oppressive and suffocating at times, and onscreen maps tied to the chapter headings offer reference, but the freedom allowed to Lena and the camera opens it all up too much.
Colonia offers Watson something different in a lead role, and she succeeds in portraying a woman of persistence and dedication. The why and how of it all is far less convincing. There’s an interesting story here to be sure, one involving the camp, its association with the Pinochet regime, and the conspiratorial relationship with the German consulate. The movie touches on all of these things, but it devotes most of its efforts to generic thrills and individual acts of violence, and the overall impact suffers for it.
The Upside: Emma Watson’s performance; intense sequences inside the cult
The Downside: Quickly sheds any pretense of importance; grows more generic by the minute; character motivations too loosely drawn