Colonia is not a “thriller,” so let’s get that out of the way. It’s a love story that also happens to be set in one of the most viscerally horrifying cult prisons in history. (The story is “based on true events.”) If that premise sounds jarring to you, you’re not alone — even the marketing for the film is confused. One of two key-art posters released hints at an ominous atmosphere, the other at romance. It’s nothing new for studios to offer different versions of what they want you to think the movie is selling, but neither of these visions seems accurate, suggesting miscommunication about what story everyone wants to tell.
The elements of Colonia promise intrigue: a kidnapped lover, a young woman (Emma Watson) stranded in the Chilean upheaval of the Cold War, an ex-Nazi colluding with Pinochet to run a religious-zealot colony that doubles as a torture-and-work camp for political activists. There, all the women are “sluts,” and the leader calls bras “harlot” clothes with the same frothy fervor that Carrie White’s mom carried on about “dirty pillows.” With Watson’s newish reputation as a kind of real-life fighter for justice, the idea of watching her battle wicked Nazis and defend the sanctity of womanhood should put butts in the seats. But the gears don’t all churn at the same speed or with unison of purpose: Is it supposed to be a romance or a thriller?
That distinction matters. There are vast differences in the filming of the two genres. For one, a romance usually focuses the camera on the two romantic leads, as the story is nearly all theirs to tell. In a thriller, the shots tend to allow us to take up the vantage point of our protagonists, seeing what they see as they see it to build tension, then flipping back to see their reaction, again and again. Colonia is most assuredly directed as a romance, so even though we find ourselves in this scary place, the tension is remarkably low, and we don’t “see” a lot of it.
Take the scene where Watson’s Lena is put before a court of men to be judged and punished for swimming naked. There’s little setup. We don’t see her being led into the room. We don’t search the faces of the men from left to right to gather how complicit they are in what’s about to happen, or even spy what else is in the room at all. We simply see a restrained Lena while a charismatic ex-Nazi played by Michael Nyqvist rants about the “stink” of whores, i.e., women. It should be scary. It’s not. Audiences can’t help but feel disappointed, then, because all signs of the story and scenery point to suspense that the film never actually offers. The sound design has romantic flourishes, and the editing is middle-of-the-road, neither speeding up nor slowing down the pacing from scene to scene. Rather than a grand buildup, Colonia just gives the sense of one thing happening, and then another thing happening.
Still, there are talented actors here. Nyqvist should be given another chance with this character in a different film, and nobody looks more intelligent or indignant while being beaten than Watson. Unfortunately, Colonia doesn’t care what its audience might want, which is more tension and less romantic longing.