The Movie Waffler New to Netflix- DISAPPEARANCE AT CLIFTON HILL | The Movie Waffler


disappearance at clifton hill review
A troubled young woman investigates a 25-year-old crime she believes she witnessed as a child.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Albert Shin

Starring: Tuppence Middleton, David Cronenberg, Hannah Gross, Marie-Josée Croze, Andy McQueen, Noah Reid, Dan Lett, Aaron Poole, Connor Jessup

disappearance at clifton hill poster

You can argue over whether movies are getting better or worse until the cows come home, but one indisputable area of filmmaking that has objectively improved is the field of acting. The formula for a convincing performance has been well and truly cracked at this point, to the degree that even amateurs can now pull off remarkably impressive turns. This year alone we've seen incredible first time performances from the likes of Helena Zengel (System Crasher), Sidney Flanigan (Never Rarely Sometimes Always) and Roxanne Scrimshaw (Lynn + Lucy), all plucked from obscurity yet capable of portraying fully realised characters out of the gate.

The quality of acting is so high now that we rarely notice a good performance anymore - it's just taken for granted at this stage. What we do notice is a movie star performance. That's something different. A movie star may not always be a great actor, but they have something even the best actors don't always possess, an indefinable charisma that makes us become enraptured by their presence, regardless of the quality of the film they happen to be in. Back in the days when we didn't have very many great actors, we had a lot of great movie stars. Now we have a surplus of great actors but not so many great movie stars.

disappearance at clifton hill review

Tuppence Middleton has been a very fine actress for over a decade now, putting in impressive turns in supporting roles across film and TV in both the UK and North America. In director Albert Shin's Canadian thriller Disappearance at Clifton Hill we witness Middleton transcend acting and morph into a movie star before our eyes. Her performance here is striking, akin to Dan Stevens' transformation from Downton Abbey jobber to attention-grabbing star in The Guest.

Middleton plays Abby, a psychologically troubled young woman whose problems may have their roots in a traumatic incident from her childhood. As outlined in the film's prologue, as a young girl Abby witnessed the abduction of a young boy from the woods on the outskirts of Niagara Falls, beaten and piled into a car by a mysterious black-wigged woman and a ginger-haired man. Nobody believed the young Abby, even when a local boy named Alex Moulin disappeared at the very same time and was ultimately declared a suicide victim.

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25 years later, Abby returns to Niagara Falls when her mother passes away. The rundown family motel, 'The Rainbow', has been left to Abby and her sister Laure (Hannah Gross). Despite Laure having agreed to sell the motel to Charlie Lake (Eric Johnson), the head of one of those classic sinister film noir families who lord over their local community from up on a hill (think Barbara Stanwyck and Kirk Douglas in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers), Abby moves into the motel and gets delusional notions of making a go of the place.

disappearance at clifton hill review

Upon her return to her hometown, Abby finds herself drawn back into the case of Alex Moulin's disappearance, and with the aid of local podcaster and amateur historian Walter (David Cronenberg, impressive in a role that refreshingly doesn't cheaply trade on his reputation as a horror director), she begins to investigate the case, uncovering the underworld underbelly of the tourist trap.

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Disappearance at Clifton Hill often feels like a more controlled version of what David Robert Mitchell was attempting with his messily ambitious neo-noir Under the Silver Lake. As with that movie, we're presented with a hapless millennial protagonist turned amateur sleuth, and Shin's movie feels as indebted to David Lynch's Blue Velvet as Mitchell's. Alex Sowinski and Leland Whitty's score adds an unsettling sonic layer ripped from the Angelo Badalamenti songbook. Shin's direction is deceptively simple, his camera always in just the right place to convey the required moods of unease and paranoia as Abby finds herself hiding in closets and being chased through haunted house attractions by figures whom she believes are out to silence her, but whose guilt we're never quite convinced of. Despite its Niagara Falls setting, Shin smartly never shows the famous falls themselves, allowing us to experience Abby's surrounds as though they were those of our own unremarkably familiar hometown. Great use is made of the tacky commercial trappings of Canada's Vegas, including a meeting in a cheesetastic flying saucer themed diner.

disappearance at clifton hill review

But for all the good work around her, this is very much the Tuppence Middleton show. Abby is one of the more intriguing protagonists of recent years, arguably more of a sociopath than some of the characters she believes are connected with the unfolding mystery she stubbornly interferes with (she treats her long-suffering sister deplorably). A compulsive liar, we're led to surmise that Abby's condition may be a result of her parents refusing to believe her claims as a child, so now she's decided she might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. A late revelation reveals just how unhinged Abby is, and the tale of how she has spent her recent past sounds like it would make for a cracking thriller in itself (somebody give Shin the money to make this prequel!). Like Ann Skelly's heroine in this year's revenge thriller Rose Plays Julie, Middleton's Abby is out of her depth as an investigator, and in one skilfully constructed face-off she begins a confrontation by cockily accusing someone of Alex's murder, only to end up fleeing in terror when the tables are turned on her, regressing to the frightened little girl we saw in the movie's opening segment.

After a few years of boring, unimaginative "strong female leads", we're beginning to see a return to more psychologically nuanced women protagonists, the sort of women you would never adopt as a role model but whose screen adventures are far more watchable and relatable than those of some unimpeachable goody two shoes heroine. You can keep your Wonder Women. More Flawed Femmes like Abby please!

Disappearance at Clifton Hill is on Netflix UK now.

2020 movie reviews