One of the less terrifying stories to break in the early days of the Covid pandemic was the news that the 2011 disaster film Contagion had rocketed up the streaming charts. The movie, which starred Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, and Gwyneth Paltrow in the lead roles, told the story of Mitch Emhoff (Damon), who loses his wife to a new, highly contagious virus, and the efforts of Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne) to contain its spread.
Produced almost a decade before the depredations wrought by Covid, Contagion won plaudits on its release for its tight plotting and chilling portrayal of the disruption caused by the spread of a lethal virus unchecked through the world’s population. It was eerily prescient in its depiction of contact tracing, mass panic, and the spread of misinformation over the internet by conspiracy theorists (one of whom was played with near-religious fervor by Jude Law). Such was the renewed interest in the film that cast members reunited in early 2020 to help spread the word about social distancing and face masks as ways of protecting against Covid. Its director Steven Soderbergh announced that a sequel was in the works.
But we do not have to wait for Soderbergh’s project to come to fruition to watch great films about the philosophical and moral dilemmas thrown up by pandemics. Among the inevitable spoofs and comedy takes on pandemics to have been released over the last three years, there have also appeared a good number of intelligent, well-told dramas on the subject. Here are three of the best.
Released six months before the Covid pandemic began, Virus was a box office hit on release in India, where it was filmed, and was briefly picked up by Amazon Prime. It tells the story of a hard-working doctor (played by Kunchacko Boban in an award-winning performance) whose medical facility is suddenly inundated with people suffering from a mystery illness. As more and more people are infected, the illness is identified as the deadly Nipah virus. The film resonated with audiences in southern India in particular, not least because it cut so close to the bone. Unlike Contagion, the situation Virus depicted actually happenedresulting in 17 deaths in 2018 before the virus was contained in the southern region of Kerala, where the film was shot.
Benefiting from naturalistic performances from Boban, Tovino Thomas, and Parvathy Thiruvothu as Dr. Annu and a Hans Zimmer-esque score by Sushin Shyam, Virus ramps up the tension without resorting to sensationalism. Aashiq Abu‘s tight, intelligent directing made full use of close-ups, sound design, and terse dialogue to create feelings of dread and claustrophobia in the cramped environments of the ambulances and hospital wards in which the battle to contain the outbreak played out and won a slew of awards on release. Abu’s latest film, a critique of ratings-hungry newscasters called Naaradanwas released last month to positive reviews.
This 2020 curio was written in the early stages of the pandemic and filmed in a single take in Canada. The premise involves an elevator in an apartment building whose inhabitants are trapped inside it due to a technical failure. When an Asian woman in the elevator coughs, the others suspect she has what one of the characters calls “the Chinese virus.”
The film was made on a shoestring budget, with partly improvised dialogue and a cast of unknowns – veteran character actor Josh Blacker (Batwoman) and Emy Aneke and Andy Canete’s bit-part work in Hollywood films such as Star Trek: Beyond and Deadpool 2 notwithstanding. Corona suffers from some one-dimensional characterization and some contrived plotting. Still, director Mostafa Keshvari’s work is never less than competent. The film offers an effective critique of the xenophobic attitudes and knee-jerk reactions that have unfortunately proven all too common in light of the pandemic.
Released last month, Ashgrove is a tour de force, an ingenious mixture of post-apocalyptic science fiction and character-driven drama. The protagonist, Dr. Jennifer Ashgrove, played by Amanda Brugel (Suicide Squad, The Handmaid’s Tale), is faced with an intractable problem: a water-borne illness that has adulterated so much of the world’s water supply that the population is struggling to source enough clean water to stay alive. As the clock ticks and the death count rises, Brugel’s hot-shot scientist has to find a solution to the problem and begins to buckle under the stress, causing problems in her relationship with husband Jason, played by Jonas Chernick (Cinema of Sleep, The Best Laid Plans).
The low-key beginning is counterbalanced by a gritty second and third act, in which Ashgrove begins suffering from blackouts, and the line between reality and thought grows increasingly blurred. In a media environment where portrayals of the Covid pandemic in fiction typically adopt the strategy of ramping up the hysteria to new levels, Ashgrove takes the opposite approach, examining the meaning of “normal” life in the midst of extraordinary social upheaval.
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