On the Line (2023)
On the Line (2023)

Genre: Psychological Thriller Running Time: 1 hr. 14 min.

Release Date: August 22nd, 2023 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Oliver Pearn Actors: Victoria Lucie, Royce Pierreson, Joanne Rogers, Harriet Walter, Thomas Bliss

 


 

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t’s 1964 in Alderney, in the Channel Islands archipelago, where Agnes (Victoria Lucie) operates the switchboard – mundane, lonely work, as she’s the only one in the building. Though her face is unseen by those she interacts with, she’s conscientious of her voice – a valuable asset for this particular job (after all, she was the winner of the Regional Best Voice Award). And many of the regular callers are familiar with her, at least by name (and sound). She also has full power over phone communications; pranksters who say inappropriate things just might lose their ability to ever make a call.

But her professionalism and careful cadence aren’t of primary concern when, one day, she receives a call that needs to be transferred to the police station. “Help. You’ve got to do something. There’s someone you’ve got to alert.” A woman named Martha seems to be in serious trouble, perhaps abducted, making more than one attempt to reach out for assistance. But the authorities don’t have much to go on, despite the limited number of people on the remote territory. Even when Agnes tries to obtain further details or clues, she’s always at a distance, stuck in a tiny room as more and more harrowing events unfold through her receiver.

“Nothing much happens here.” With ominous percussion and an eye for transforming a benign yet claustrophobic environment into something of a character itself, this uncomplicated thriller sets out to mine the most out of a jittery scenario. With just a single person onscreen through which audiences must collect information, digest the tension, and relate to, it’s a bold and uncommon – but nevertheless effective – presentation. Curiously, it’s been done before, not just with pictures set entirely in one location, like “12 Angry Men” and “Rope,” but also with works that feature a solitary role, like “Moon” and “All Is Lost.” And then there are movies that do both, such as “Locke” and “Buried.” Even the concept of a phone operator struggling to deal with a crime that she frustratingly can’t physically intercede in was previously seen in “The Call.”

Still, “On the Line’s” design is appropriate and smart; there really isn’t a better way to make a low-budget (or minimally-resourced) psychological thriller than with this approach (it’s also written, directed, and produced by the same man, Oliver Pearn). Removed from the action, Agnes’ perspective keeps viewers at a nerve-jangling span, similarly unable to intervene in a concrete manner. And thanks to Lucie’s outstanding performance, which is the principal aspect holding it all together, it’s impressively convincing (a handful of other voices are notably less authentic). However, this specific tale is unexpectedly grounded; it doesn’t boast the standard Hollywood levels of exaggeration and embellishment, making it intermittently unpretentious in a fashion that borders on unstimulating. This is to its benefit when it comes to believability and realism, but it’s moderately detrimental for the sake of pure entertainment value. “I’m part of everyone’s lives!”

The ‘60s setting is also strange, as Martha is able to continue making numerous phone calls, from ever-changing locations, without access to the handy technology of a mobile device (the geography of the town and the locations of public booths [littoral ones at that] feel suspect, regardless of any potential historical accuracy) – with the added difficulties of ostensibly trying to hide her communications from a kidnapper. Fortunately, the pacing is swift and a couple of surprises make the climax more engaging. The falling action is mostly satisfying as well, somewhat padded with extraneous notes on personal, seemingly unrelated dramas, though once again, the logistics of easy access to telephones is something of a conundrum; this exact story might have been more persuasive if transposed to an era of marginally greater modernity.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10