In theatre, the one- or two-person show can be an incredible crucible for claustrophobic action. It offers opportunities for showcasing intense chemistry, developing unrivalled suspense, or interrogating conflicts. Film has found several equivalents, the most basic – and often the least effective, cinematically anyway – being adaptations of plays with small casts.
In recent years there’s also been a flood of films which, like a lot of theatre, take place in extremely restricted physical settings. This entrapping device is used to amplify suspense or conflict, or to put a specific relationship under a microscope. The best examples combine all three, working through conflict and suspense to create dramatic studies of relationships in flux.
These films don’t just use setting as a backdrop. Location takes on a larger significance, contributing to or becoming the premise of the movie. This week’s hurtling juggernaut of an example, Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, makes it obvious just how central setting can be: without the Orient Express there would be no murder, and therefore no plot.
Though confined spaces lend themselves particularly well to horrors and thrillers, where the maintenance and eventual collapse of suspense is an integral part of the viewing experience, restricted settings crop up in many genres. Here’s our guide to the best and worst from recent years.
Carnage – Roman Polanski’s 2011 movie is based on a French absurdist play yet avoids the pitfall of resembling filmed theatre. A ridiculously well-cast ensemble – Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz – play two sets of parents who meet to discuss a nasty fight between their sons. Within the entrapping walls of a single New York apartment, their false social niceties gradual collapse into hysterically over-honest verbal attacks – and ultimately, well, full-scale jungle madness.
The Party – Sally Potter’s latest is similar in outline to Carnage, with a group of privileged Londoners gathering for a dinner party to celebrate a friend’s professional achievement. Potter’s sparkling script is top-notch at both surface level and in its character-driven plotting. Patricia Clarkson gives a euphoria-producing performance and deservedly snags all the best one-liners. The characters bounce off each other fabulously as all of their deep, dark and entangled secrets come out. The conclusion, while arguably a bit of a cop-out, does pleasingly draw everything together with a final stab of black comedy.
The Pass – Yes, yes, The Pass passes. This debut feature is another small-setting film based upon a play. It’s physical and vibrant thanks to the focus on two young footballers, and has a delightfully elegant three-act structure which presents a sequence of hotel rooms over several years. We never spend too long in one place, yet each segment develops our understanding of Russell Tovey’s and Arinzé Kene’s characters.
10 Cloverfield Lane – This ersatz sequel to 2008’s Cloverfield restricts its setting in a way common to many thrillers and horrors – a small group of people are trapped in an underground bunker with a threatening figure. Though John Goodman does his best in this ambiguous role, it doesn’t change the fact that 10 Cloverfield Lane is really just an alternating sequence of tediousness and jump scares. We just don’t know the tiny cast of characters well enough to care about them.
August: Osage County – The Party is shaped around a dinner party at which the characters never make it to the table. This proves a wise decision, as it enables the characters to move around and prevents the film from becoming static. Furthermore, it enables characters to witness others without being seen themselves, in turn facilitating a plot which hinges on the secreting and revealing of information.
Though it begins elsewhere, the bulk of August: Osage County takes place around a large dining table as an estranged family rattle at skeletons in the closet. Unfortunately it has none of the bite or hysterical levity of either Carnage or The Party. The restricted setting, brown-dominated palette and verbose screenplay make proceedings rather sluggish. This is how not to adapt a play for cinema. The same might be said of Denzel Washington’s Fences, which also takes place largely within a small home. Fences, though, has two powerful lead characters (not to mention performers) rather than a sea of unsympathetic and under-characterised figures like August. While its drama does still feel stagy at times, Washington’s rhythmic delivery keeps the pace up.
Room – Perhaps the most tenuous inclusion of all, as its setting becomes much wider – literally – in the film’s second half. But this is part of what makes Room so interesting. This adaptation of Emma Donaghue’s acclaimed novel begins within the confined space in which its characters are trapped. Its first masterstroke is to present this limited world from the perspective of a young boy who has never known anything else. The second is allowing Ma and Jack (Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay) to escape relatively early in the movie – Room henceforth becomes a different beast entirely as it explores the repercussions of the trauma glimpsed in its first half. Two very well-developed character perspectives make Room gripping and emotionally engaging.
A Ghost Story – The primary setting – a young couple’s ramshackle house – is elevated into a character. It’s a cliché but still a valid point; the house is not only the setting for the lives of C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) but the site in which many other characters and eras are presented. Along with Affleck’s besheeted form, it’s the film’s only constant. It’s a deceptively simple concept which, as we haunt the house along with him, creates the opportunity for pondering a wide range of philosophical and metaphysical questions.
So, what are the ingredients for a great single-setting film? The space must be treated as an opportunity rather than a limitation, with choreography allowing characters to interact in different places and combinations. Characters need to be exceptionally well-developed to warrant so much focus, and big vivacious personas are great for comedy. We don’t have to like them or root for them, but they need to be entertaining.