Despite its accounts of Cold War paranoia and ungodly corruption, The Colony (Colonia) is a thoroughly romantic picture. The decision to prioritise Emma Watson and Daniel Brühl’s cult captives over an international crisis could have easily made for a fatal pitfall, but the story at the film’s core packs enough cruel surprises to warrant any flashes of sentimentality.
Familiarity hangs over a few of the scenes sandwiching a gripping middle section. News footage of Cuban crowds in protest, and particularly a sequence in which camera-happy revolutionary Daniel (Brühl) gets himself and his air hostess girlfriend Lena (Watson) captured during a coup, find director Florian Gallenberger disinterested in presenting this era in a novel way.
An opening rendition of “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone” at first seems like a curious choice, but codependency is soon felt from both sides of the film’s central relationship, when Daniel is identified by an anonymous informant and sent to Colonia Dignidad, a mysterious sect led by real-life fascist, paedophile and Christian charlatan Paul Schäfer (Michael Nyqvist).
After torturing him for information, the colony’s medical staff conclude that Daniel has sustained debilitating brain damage, but decide to keep him on as a labourer. Refreshingly, it’s Lena who drives the narrative forward. She launches her one-woman rescue mission by enrolling in the cult’s female camp, immediately meeting a barrage of abuse from a sadistic Mother Superior figure (Richenda Carey).
Since Gallenberger’s camera is so unabashedly keen on Watson and Brühl’s warm star wattage, any character who isn’t an absolute swine tends to fade into the background. Nonetheless, when a vulnerable resident is subjected to the community’s brutal practices, it still strikes a chord.
For much of its duration, The Colony does not revel in violence or gratuity. One shocking stampede of misogyny is snappily edited to resemble something more akin to Twin Peaks at its most mundanely disturbing than an Eli Roth film. Even the film’s singular reference to child abuse is rendered as sensitively as one could hope for.
Amid a convincingly played love story, Gallenberger lets Schäfer’s monstrous and much-documented crimes speak for themselves. When blood does spill, it hits hard, but the tension he conjures throughout a couple of exhilarating escape attempts brings its own pay-off.
Yet every nightmare must come to an end, and a sharp switch in setting during the third act exposes the screenplay’s habit for showing rather than telling. Perhaps ejecting Daniel and Lena back into a world we’ve barely explored distracts from the original energy of their romance. Only two people really matter in The Colony, and by the end, the Cold War feels a bit like the third wheel.
The Colony is out in UK cinemas today.