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» Edinburgh International Film Festival 2013 Review - The East

by Samantha Morrison, published on Sunday, June 30, 2013 - 2:24 AM PDT

Directed by Zal Batmanglij.
Starring Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Julia Ormond, Patricia Clarkson and Jason Ritter.

The East

Synopsis:

Intelligence company Hillard Brood send in agent Jane to infiltrate an extremist left-wing group, to attempt to prevent their next attacks.

The East

I must admit, this film appealed to me entirely because I quite like Ellen Page. It was quite a shock when the film started and I realised she wasn’t even the main character, but a supporting member of the extremist group, ‘The East’. However, I am immensely glad that I did end up going to see this. It described itself as a thriller, which I wouldn’t say is exactly right, but it is most definitely very dramatic and rejoices in suspense. It delicately treads the line of moral ambiguity: examining the very worst sides of capitalism, and simultaneously the worst sides of the movements that fight against them, forcing us to determine for ourselves whether any of these institutions can be at all justified in their actions.

Jane (or Sarah, as she is known when undercover, played by Brit Marling) is eager to begin her assignment, having been researching her role for the best part of a year. However, I liked that Batmanglij shows us how fruitless and exhausting it is for the first while, as she attempts to integrate with likely people who turn out to be useless to her, and how hard it is to be away from her boyfriend and usual life. When she eventually makes her way into The East itself, she finds an unusual breed of people that she is clearly entirely unprepared for. The film continues to show her forming relationships with them to extract information, and the difficulties she faces when those relationships begin to compromise her loyalty to her company. The eternally fraught line between choosing to maintain her Sarah-mask or share her true self makes for deliciously tense drama, and combined with the group’s relentless progress forwards to the next ‘jams’, the film positively pulls you out of your seat in anticipation.

The pace of the film is brilliantly done: slow, controlled, and deliberate. The pacing is the film’s greatest strength; it manages to make the film a fairly easy watch while still deliberating over meaning and depth in the characters.

Unusually for mainstream films, Jane is a practising Christian: we see her pray for strength and humility before her task begins, before removing her cross to maintain her cover. Unfortunately, this is only one of two occasions where her faith is in any way included in the plot, and neither are substantial. As a Christian myself, I was interested to see how Batmanglij would depict the interaction between her faith and her work, and I was disappointed to see that it was not at all developed. In the Q&A after the film, Batmanglij said that her faith was to ground her in a belief system, so that as her character develops, she doesn’t change entirely. While I recognise his aim, I still feel it could have been better accomplished if we had seen her look to her faith when deciding whose loyalties to keep.

I would say the film’s biggest weakness lay in its portrayal of The East itself. Batmanglij spoke about how he and Marling spent a summer living with these sorts of groups, and admitted that none of them partook in the type of recreational activities that The East do. The East seem fascinated by intimately washing each other, and they also treat Sarah terribly when she arrives, putting her through a humiliating initiation process - despite Batmanglij saying that all the people he met were kind and welcoming. While you might normally allow a director artistic license in these matters, I feel that these additions only serve to make The East feel more abnormal and distant from regular society, when of course they are civilised and from society themselves. To pretend they are not discredits and dehumanises them, which I think is a cheap way to treat them, especially when bearing in mind that they are genuinely trying to improve the world, despite their unorthodox methods.

All in all, I would say that The East is an excellent watch, and poses some important questions. Though, if you are looking to learn more about extremist left-wing groups, The East is not where you should look for realism.

Flickering Myth Rating - Film: 3/5 / Movie 4/5

Source: www.flickeringmyth.com

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