Colonia is unspectacular in every sense of the word, a film with little-to-no interest in doing anything original, interesting or worthwhile throughout its tedious 110-minute running time. It’s a consistently dull, frustratingly mediocre muddle of a movie with no heart or passion on display. It’s a dramatic thriller build on no intrigue, suspense or tension; it’s almost as if it’s inherently designed to be as insipid as it can be under these circumstances. In her third lead role to date, Emma Watson does what little she can to bring some life into this non-starter, but it’s not enough to make it work. Despite the Harry Potter alum’s massive fandom, this cult-focused drama should have a fairly difficult time earning its own followers.
Loosely inspired by true events, Colonia centers on two young German lovers, Lena (Watson) and Daniel (Daniel Bruhl) battling against a Chilean military coup in 1973. She’s a precocious young flight assistant who tends to keep her cards close to her deck, while he’s a vigorous artist-photographer political activist who will stop at nothing to expose the regime’s unlawful actions to the world-at-large. And such foot-stomping is what lands the rebel in trouble, as he’s caught taking damning photos of solider-to-civilian brutality and seized under the government’s control. Tortured and prodded in unknown whereabouts, Lena is devastated and demands answers. She will do whatever it takes to find her lover in her arms once again, and her unstoppable dedication is what leads her to find the elusive outskirts of Colonia Dignidad, a.k.a. Dignity Colony, a mysterious civilization where Daniel is trapped miles away from the rest of society.
Aware that the only way to save Daniel is to pull him out from the inside, Lena sheds her former identity, dresses in an unflatteringly drab uniform and offers herself as a volunteer to the community. And it doesn’t take long for Lena to make the acquaintance of Paul Schafer (Swedish The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo‘s Michael Nvqist), an ex-Nazi-turned-minister leader who rules the gender-segregated community with a stern eye, a quick hand and a menacing tongue. His uncompromising rationality invites violent outlandish behavior among the males and demoralized the women as little more than sluts and whores. Insert Donald Trump joke here. His ruthless behavior makes the next 132 days a living hell for our demoralized Lena, but her tenacity and courage never waver. She won’t stop until her boyfriend is safely in her arms once again —unless they kill her first.
It’s either ironic or fitting that this cult drama-thriller follows suit with other films before it. Where others have previously explored this subject matter to unsettling and thought-provoking results, Colonia settles on tiredly going through-the-motions, plotting itself with little excitement or mystery in its exhaustingly drawn-out story. Recently, films like Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sound of My Voice and The Master —and also, from what I hear, Hulu’s newest television series The Path — find gut-wrenching and deeply fascinating ways to explore the mental and physical altercations, as well as the psychological moralities, caused, molded and tampered within these communities. But here, director Floran Gallenberger could care less about examining the depths of this colony and the effects it holds on one’s personal well-being.
Everything comes at a blunt, uninspired force — inviting little curiosity or subtly, despite its eccentric cast of supporting characters. Nvquist’s performance is appropriately ferocious and creepy, but Gallenberger doesn’t invite enough nuance and range to let him delve into anything more than a perverse, backwards psychopath. There are hints at just how derived this true-life personality becomes, particularly after one fairly haunting scene with little boys, but Gallenberger is either too insecure or too unfocused to give this real-life figure a proper on-screen examination. Likewise, Richenda Carey — providing a fairly brilliant subdued supporting turn as Gisela, the female supervisor in this cult, when given the chance to shine — can’t find more than a scattering of screen-time to show the full prowess of her fierce performance. And just as much can be said about Jeanne Werner as Doro, a sheltered, doe-eyed young colony girl who quickly befriends Lena and never learned about life outside their walls. All of this adds up to a period-piece thriller that doesn’t bother to take any steps towards earning its convictions, and therefore doesn’t deserve anything more than a passive watch from the viewer.
It’s an unbearably draining two-hour slog that can’t quite figure out what it wants to say. As mentioned before, it fails to add any hard-hitting commentary on religion, sadism, sexual perversion, politics or societal rules, and it doesn’t care whether or not it makes an grand points on how this story might be relevant today. What’s more, Watson can’t do anything to make us believe in the soul-crushing depths Lena must journey through to get to the one she loves. Her performance comes across as doubtful in all the wrong ways, and it’s not nearly as emotionally committed as it should be — especially in order to sell this type of white-knuckled suspense drama. And worse yet, she fails to share any firm chemistry with Bruhl, making their mismatched relationship hard to invest in and their journey less heart-wrenching to watch.
On a technical level, Colonia is never less than professionally competent. Though only a few images are truly striking, Kolja Brandt’s cinematography gives a fine sense of scope in correlation to the confines of Dignidad — which is, at once, both expansive and claustrophobic. And the production designers do a stunning job bringing this cult gathering destination back to life. The film is also exceptionally well-lit, carrying a polished, assured craftsmanship to its quality. If only that were put to more practical use than it was here, though. Although Gallenberger almost finds his footing during the middle act, when the sickening turpitude of this colony is shown more intently, it doesn’t take long for Colonia to dive off the deep end again — and this time for good. The final act grows more preposterous, cliched and overblown as it goes along, and it all accumulates to an Argo-inspired airport chase climax that doesn’t carry as much skill or create nearly as much nail-bitting anxiety as Ben Affleck’s Best Picture winner.
It’s hard to make cults boring, but Colonia finds a way. Flat and workmanlike in its convictions, it doesn’t warrant anything more than a passing shrug — the exact opposite response a controversial hot-topic film like this should get. But everything about it is just so lukewarm, even the torture scenes. There’s simply nothing engaging or worthwhile about this one, and it demonstrates a severe number of limitations in Watson’s capabilities as a dramatic lead. In the end, Gallenberger’s film comes across as little more than a template subpar TV movie-level production, without the energy or balls to follow through on its initial concept. It may center on a sheltered group of distributed individuals, but that doesn’t mean it should be alienating itself.