Three riveting performances anchor Retreat, which is a good thing, since the film constrains most of the action to a small cottage on a small island, miles off the coast of Wales. The faces of Martin (Cillian Murphy) and Kate (Thandie Newton) look downcast as they begin the journey by boat; their countenance matches the weather, which is gloomy and overcast. Something is troubling the married couple, and they’ve decided to get away for a few days of peace and relaxation to sort things out.
After they arrive, their emotional isolation from each other becomes readily apparent: Martin wants to take a walk, but Kate is buried in her laptop. A little later, Martin knocks on the bathroom door and starts to enter, but Kate hurriedly gets up from her bath to push the door closed, not even wanting her husband to see her naked.
Their strained co-existence continues, the atmosphere curdling until they decide to cut their trip short. Before they can get ahold of the older gentlemen who rowed them to the island, Kate sees a bloodied man in uniform collapse in a field nearby. They rush to his aid and get him inside. It’s only a bit later that Kate notices he’s wearing a gun.
Before long, they learn that the stranger’s name is Jack (Jamie Bell). Jack claims to be a soldier whose raft capsized in the rough seas. He says his mission is to secure the island from a pandemic that has broken out and is rapidly spreading across the globe. It’s only a matter of time before it reaches the island; Jack insists they must stay in the cottage, tape up the windows, and bar the doors, to protect the cottage from people who will surely be fleeing the plague and searching for places of refuge.
What develops is a curious mixture, a chamber drama / reverse home invasion thriller, something like Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs set during the Spanish Influenza or William Friedkin’s Bug transferred to Wales, with three people instead of two becoming infected by paranoia and self-fulfilling delusional prophecies.
As played by Jamie Bell, Jack is a wind-up soldier who cracked a long time ago, yet who is still in possession of the training, physical stamina, and hard-bodied strength of a well-trained military man. His story resembles a broken mirror, bearing some resemblance to the truth, or at least “a” truth (something that only Jack may believe), while holding considerable potential for deception. His conviction is apparent, though his sanity is in question.
Thandie Newton and Cillian Murphy are called upon to deliver a thousand minute variations on pain and regret, and it’s marvelously enjoyable to watch them work.
Carl Tibbets makes a strong directorial debut, holding the reins on the rising hysteria inherent in such a story and also avoiding undue repetion in how the limited number of settings are used. Tibbets is also credited as co-writer, along with Janice Hallett, and, alas, it’s the script that isn't all it could be. It’s mighty hard to come up with fresh twists in a three-character story in a claustrophobic setting, and too often the narrative twists simply turn back upon themselves, self-consciously spinning away from a stereotypical “surprise” only to fall back down to earth on familiar ground. Further, there were at least two occasions when I had to stop myself from talking back (out loud) to the screen, as in: “Oh, no, you’re not really that stupid, are you?”
Admittedly, my overall positive judgment may have been skewed by sitting in the front row of the theater, which gave me the opportunity to gaze upon the beauty of Thandie Newton in extreme close-up on a big screen. (The expression "foxy lady" pre-dates her, but is an accurate description.) Mostly, though, Retreat skips along at a merry pace, and it’s good fun to watch three talented actors go through their paces, even if the thriller elements of the film proved to be disappointingly routine.