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New Release Review - MOST BEAUTIFUL ISLAND

most beautiful island review
Desperate for cash, a Spanish immigrant in New York unwittingly agrees to take part in a mysterious game.







Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Ana Asensio

Starring: Ana Asensio, Natasha Romanova, Larry Fessenden, Nicholas Tucci

most beautiful island uk poster


New York set thrillers of the '70s and '80s revelled in the city's reputation as a crime-ridden, bankrupt hellscape, a big apple riddled with worms. In the past few decades the city has undergone a remarkable transformation, becoming one of the safest cities in America, a town now more likely to feature in romantic comedies than crime dramas. A few filmmakers are still willing to take us beyond the Disney-fied facade of Manhattan - the Safdie brothers (Heaven Knows What, Good Time), Michael O'Shea (The Transfiguration) and now Ana Asensio, a jobbing Spanish actress who has made an enthralling debut as writer-director with Most Beautiful Island.

Asensio's film begins with seemingly innocuous shots of crowded Manhattan streets, but her lens begins to pick out specific young women, all alone and awkward, trying to keep their heads above the human waves. Asensio eventually settles on one such woman, Spanish immigrant Luciana (played by Asensio herself). Luciana is attractive and sports a confident air, but her face betrays a brittleness. She's a human boiled egg, ready to crack with one tap of a teaspoon.


most beautiful island

A passive-aggressive note from her housemate regarding overdue rent money tells us the American dream hasn't quite worked out for Luciana. Taking a bath, she scrapes at a tear in the wallpaper, releasing a swarm of cockroaches, each as big as a small mouse. It's a shocking moment that takes Asensio's film from social drama territory into the horror genre, and it's a portent of things to come.

Luciana's Russian friend Olga (Natasha Romanova) tells her of a job that can earn her $2,000 for simply attending a party and standing around looking pretty. Naturally, Luciana smells a rat, but Olga assures her it doesn't involve what she's thinking of. Tempted by the cash, and trusting her one friend in America, Luciana accepts the job.

Later that night, having conned a boutique into selling her a little black dress for $20 after she secretly tore its fabric, Luciana arrives at the location of the 'party', a basement in a building off the highway (not a good sign). There she is given a purse (but oddly, not the key required to open it) and finds herself assigned a number, along with a group of other girls, all young and attractive, but clearly all equally down on their luck.


most beautiful island

It quickly becomes clear that Olga has lied about the nature of the job, as one by one, the girls are taken into a room, and nobody is willing to fill in Luciana on what happens on the other side of the door, or what's inside the purses each girl carries.

A quick glance at Asensio's CV tells the story of the vast majority of actresses, a litany of (presumably unpaid) work in shorts and the odd small role here and there in TV soaps and indie features. You might surmise she wrote and directed Most Beautiful Island to give herself the lead role nobody else would - and which, on the evidence of her performance her, she thoroughly deserves - but the film seems to draw from her own experiences. The bulk of her movie's incredibly tense, horror-tinged second half involves her protagonist standing around awaiting her fate, surrounded by young women in a similarly unnerved position. It's not a stretch to assume Asensio is drawing on the many auditions she has no doubt had to endure over her career.


most beautiful island

Asensio's film begins as a street-level drama about the trials and tribulations of surviving in a foreign city, with Luciana juggling handing out fast-food flyers dressed as a chicken with babysitting a pair of bratty American kids. When the evening descends, the mood changes dramatically, and Most Beautiful Island begins to take the form of a New York riff on a scenario David Lynch might envision in Los Angeles. The second half of Most Beautiful Island is an extended set-piece that wouldn't feel out of place in Mulholland Drive or the reboot of Twin Peaks, populated by sinister men and women in luxury evening wear, committing atrocities behind red curtains. Asensio keeps us in the dark just long enough to make the tension of the situation unbearable, dangling us over a precipice before dropping us into a dark pit of human indecency.

If Asensio's goal was to gain notice as an actress by creating a plum role for herself, she's succeeded, but it's behind the camera that she really shines, making Most Beautiful Island one of the most confident directorial debuts of recent years. While a question mark hangs over the fate of the character she plays, her film suggests Asensio just might have a bright future in America.

Most Beautiful Island is in UK cinemas now.




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