The loss of sight, it’s been said, can heighten other senses. That’s an idea that Anthony Byrne’s In Darkness illustrates with an amped-up sound design that calls attention to the ambient sounds that most of us take for granted throughout our daily lives. Sofia (Natalie Dormer), a blind pianist, has no problem living an independent life in bustling London. One day, she becomes a witness to a suspicious death when her upstairs neighbor, Veronique (Emily Ratajkowski), goes flying out a window after a struggle her boyfriend, Marc (Ed Skrein). Soon, Sofia is drawn into a criminal underworld surrounding Veronique’s infamous father, Zoran Radic (Jan Bijvoet), a Serbian businessman accused of committing heinous crimes during the Bosnian War.
In Darkness begins as a tidy little thriller in the mold of Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark, though more slickly stylized and self-aware, gleefully wringing tension from the audience’s ability to see things that Sofia cannot, such as Marc sneaking around her apartment with a gun aimed at her head. In such moments, the film’s knowing sense of artifice recalls the neo-Hitchcockian pleasures of Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano and Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio. (In a perhaps intentional homage to the latter film, In Darkness opens on an orchestra recording the score for a violent thriller.)
But the film’s tone of mirthful malevolence is short-lived. Sofia, it turns out, isn’t some hapless victim of circumstances, but a war refugee with a vendetta against Radic. Byrne sustains his high-flown visual style even after the film abruptly becomes an action-heavy revenge thriller, but he’s still far less adept at handling zippy fight sequences than winking suspense, as demonstrated by a clunky CGI-assisted “single-shot” action sequence that offers a poor imitation of similar effects in genre films such as The Raid: Redemption.
More problematically, the high artifice of Bryne’s style only serves to highlight In Darkness’s icky way of exploiting real-world tragedy for kicks. The film’s script, co-written by Byrne and Dormer, has nothing in particular to say about the Bosnian War, its refugees, or anything else for that matter. It’s only interested in evoking real-life massacres and sexual violence as shorthand character motivation for its protagonist. Rather than give historical weight to In Darkness, such awful misdeeds only drain the film of its sense of fun.