Anthony Byrne’s London-set spy thriller In Darkness opens with an extreme close-up on a woman’s eye, mascaraed lashes thick and beautiful and its lid shuddering in fear, all as an orchestral score swells. This might be a nod to the opening credits sequence of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo but it also transforms into a meta-statement on the movies themselves. The woman in the image, we discover, is actually an actress on a screen being watched by an orchestra scoring a film. Then, the moment the camera pans over to blind pianist Sofia (played by Natalie Dormer, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Byrne), it’s obvious she’s the coiffed blond protagonist of this espionage tale, the one we’re watching rather than the one they’re scoring. The first third of the story then presents her like a typical Hitchcock ingenue before branching out into a promisingly ambitious mystery. Too bad that story ultimately loses focus on its protagonist.
Sofia has a healthy fascination with her upstairs neighbor, Veronique (Emily Ratajkowski), a hypnotically beautiful and mysterious woman whose father, Radic (Jan Bijvoet), is a Serbian war criminal. One night, Sofia overhears a scuffle from the apartment above and something being launched out the window. She can’t actually see a body, but she senses that Veronique must be dead on the ground. Up until this incident, the story has held tight to Sofia’s POV; whatever is going on is a puzzle that can only be pieced together through her eyes and other senses. Byrne in these early scenes doubles down on the unnerving tension with a series of Dutch angles, overhead shots and prolonged holds on drains, textbook visual storytelling without the help of dialogue — done before but still very effective. So it’s a bit disappointing when Byrne departs Sofia’s POV to catch up with Radic and his cohorts, who ordered Veronique’s murder. Suddenly, all that style and camera work fade to make way for too many other people’s voices and motives.
That’s not to say that the performances of these supporting actors fail to be good or thoughtful. It’s just that Joely Richardson, playing a kind of cutthroat lawyer/adviser type, and Ed Skrein as the lovesick spy who begins falling for Sofia even as he’s sent to kill her, get too much screen time, dwindling the mystery. There’s something wonderful about a thriller where we only know as much as the protagonist does, but that’s also a far more difficult kind of script to write, especially if the protagonist is a bit of an unreliable narrator herself — and Sofia is definitely unreliable.
Byrne imbues his ingenue with a hidden, crafty nature and twisted backstory, so she possesses more agency than, say, Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much, fumbling through Morocco until her husband has to knock her out with sleeping pills. And the ways in which Byrne sets off the bombshells hidden in Sofia’s past and present are often admirably subtle. He trusts the audience to work out much of what matters for themselves, like one key piece of the story popping up when Sofia suddenly sits down with an enigmatic older man we’ve not seen before halfway through the film. But it’s a mind-boggling choice to begin this story with that meta-moment of orchestra scoring the film and to portray Sofia as a musician, then to drop that theme completely as this host of less fascinating characters all get caught up in intrigue.