Imagine going to a job interview where the following takes place: you’re invited into a room with 7 other candidates. You sit at your desk, one per person. On each desk is a single sheet of paper with your candidate number on and a pencil. A man enters room and identifies himself only as “The Invigilator”. He informs you that you have 80 minutes to answer a single question. He tells you that if you leave the room you will be disqualified, if you spoil your paper you will be disqualified and if you attempt to communicate with him or the security guard standing in the corner of the room you will be disqualified. As the clock is started, the invigilator leaves the room, and you turn your paper over, to find it is blank. What do you do?

This simple premise is the launching off point of British thriller Exam. Clearly shot on a limited budget, it extends this idea across 90 taught, well-paced minutes. Everything in the room and hence in the film, happens in real time, giving a realistic air of tension and eventually panic as the job applicants bickers, co-operate, fall out and out do each other in their attempts to decipher not just the answer, but the question as well. Any single location movie such as this one lives and dies by its characters, and Exam presents a respectable, if somewhat stereotypical bunch. None of the applicants are named in the film; instead they soon agree to communicate via descriptive code names – Black, White, Dark, Brown, Blonde, Brunette, and Deaf – the 8th applicant leaving before she is given a call sign.

Each of the actors playing an applicant is experienced but not well known in cinema. This helps the film’s atmosphere, as with a cast of “unknowns”, there no known “face” that can either be relied upon to see the final reel, or be removed in the earlier sequences, as a shock. As you’ll not doubt have guessed, many of the applicants are more then they appear, with various secrets being uncovered through the course of the film. The escalation is believable as time marches on, and the remaining characters get more and more desperate. Information slowly leaks out about the company running the exam and the greater world in which the film is set. Sensibly, nothing is given away in great speeches, rather drip fed via believable character interaction.

Perhaps the biggest name actor amongst the applicants is Jimi Mistry, an EastEnders veteran, who headlined The Guru {2002, Dir. Daisy von Scherler Mayer). I have to admit to looking this up after the film ended as he seemed familiar yet I couldn’t place him. Personally, the only actor I recognised immediately was the Invigilator – played by the wonderful Colin Salmon. Sadly, Salmon is playing another Basil Exposition role here, appearing when required to dole out plot details but he’s a past master of such characters (think Resident Evil {2002 Dir. Paul W.S. Anderson}, AvP (Dir. 2004, Paul W.S. Anderson) or his recurring role in the Brosnan era Bond movies) and is always watchable. There’s something about his presence and perfectly stated accent that screams authority figure. For me, Chukwudi Iwuji stands out from the group, with an excellently nuanced performance, but each actor is given a moment to shine, within in the confines of the story. It never knowingly devolves into desperate award bating.

Unfortunately, all the strong work of Exam is wasted by a weak ending. By having the characters shown to go to such desperate lengths to secure the job, the film makers have written themselves into a narrative dead end from which they are unable to escape. The answer and indeed the question are solved fairly neatly, but not satisfactorily. It’s the same problem when you heard the answer to a riddle – some people will be impressed by how clever it was, others will groan at how pointless/silly/unguessable it was. Unfortunately, in the case of Exam’s riddle, I fell in the later category. More importantly, the ending sequence calls in question the process by which the original candidates were selected. Given the explanations provided, it seems utterly ludicrous that some of the individuals present at the start would have been headhunted for this job, let alone reach the final 8 applicants.

Whether you enjoy Exam will largely depend on your personal attitudes and expectations. If you appreciate a group of actors working with a taught, interesting script, you should get a lot of pleasure from this film. If you can ignore plot holes in favour of performance, Exam will work for you. But if you want a rounded story that will stay with you afterwards, or a satisfying conclusion to interesting conundrum, you’ll probably walk out disappointed. This is the key question you’ll need to answer, before you see Exam.

Jim