There’s no doubt about it, a tense atmosphere bubbles up from underneath Cordelia, but even with its eerie feeling and the great two-punch combo of enjoyable acting talent in the leads, the film still falls way short of becoming a really creepy and clever psychological horror. Set in the claustrophobic halls of an eerie Victorian London mansion turned flat and the seedy back streets of the city’s dark underbelly, really do scream out horror film. It is aided by the music, the framing, and a definitive feeling of discomfit, but even with all of that, the film’s floundering and its hazy narrative are what ultimately drag it down.
For Cordelia (Antonia Campbell-Hughes, who also co-writes with director Adrian Shergold), her life is dramatically changed due to a traumatic event on a train, and in the years that have passed, she now lives an incredibly sheltered life. Cordelia now works as a struggling actress and lives with her twin sister (also played by Campbell-Hughes) in this creepy but alluring London apartment. The duel acting from Campbell-Hughes is a fun little aspect because, with the use of clever cuts and some well-chosen framing, the twins never fully appear on screen together, which allows for a much easier representation of two completely opposite characters.
The vulnerable and extremely troubled Cordelia is left alone for a weekend when her sister goes away with her boyfriend (Joel Fry), and during this alone time is when she meets her wonderfully charming but mysterious neighbor Frank (Johnny Flynn). Although, his calm and confident demeanor is somewhat suspicious and while the paranoid Cordelia attempts to figure out what Frank’s motives are, she soon begins to spiral into a world of trouble, becoming a danger to herself and others.
One of the first things that become known is the sound design; the sounds of the streets, the subtle house creaks, and the heavy breathing all intertwine with one another to create this idea of psychological tension. It is all very standard practice for a horror film but that’s not to say it doesn’t work, not at all, because the atmosphere is there from the beginning, and slowly builds throughout – sometimes with no resolution at all, but it is there. Frank also carries his equally mysterious cello around with him at all times, they are joined at the hip it seems – this is classic horror iconography and ironically in tune with the film’s score, because what family of instruments compliments the horror genre more than the string family? And they’re used in abundance here.
Cordelia really tries to creep up on you from the sinister shadows that drench the film, and for the most part, it works at generating a certain amount of unease. And yet, for all the film’s darker qualities, its stubbornness at constantly trying to be psychologically unnerving is what halts its progress; the dialogue is at times questionable because its aim is to be weird, it becomes unnatural and very forced. The effort the film goes to, to create atmosphere and then not truly deliver an outcome is almost bordering on a sick joke. One moment in particular, as Cordelia attempts to bury the stiffest cat in the world (how long was it in the rain for?) whilst looking like she’s never used a spade in her life, the music then intensifies to such an extreme that you are just waiting for something to happen, and then… nothing, not a peep – the cat’s lucky it’s heading into the ground. There’s a bit too much build-up and not enough outcome for its “psychological” aspect to fully bloom.
Cordelia builds and builds with a multitude of aspects; segments of the plot, the alluring music, the patient acting – building up to a great finale you would think, and before you know it, you have been betrayed by a kind of a cop-out, leaving it up to individual interpretation instead. Your thought process begins to work overtime at trying to engineer a solid scenario for the confusion, but there are too many loose ends, and too many possibilities to leave it up to interpretation alone. Everything is just a little bit unclear, and there are too many questions left unanswered for this film to deliver the outcome it was so clearly trying to reach. And because of its lack of closure, the film is affected by its need to be too clever.