SPLIT

Empire (UK) - - ON.SCREEN - KIM NEW­MAN

DI­REC­TOR M. Night Shya­malan CAST James Mcavoy, Ha­ley Lu Richardson, Anya Tay­lor-joy, Jes­sica Sula

PLOT Teenagers Casey (Tay­lor-joy), Mar­cia (Sula) and Claire (Richardson) are ab­ducted by mul­ti­ple-split-per­son­al­ity Kevin Crumb (Mcavoy). Casey plays Kevin’s al­ter egos off each other, and learns they’re ex­pect­ing the ar­rival of a ma­lign new per­son­al­ity.

AROUND THE TURN of the cen­tury, writer-di­rec­tor M. Night Shya­malan es­sen­tially cre­ated his own genre with The Sixth Sense,

Un­break­able and Signs: sus­pense­ful char­ac­ter stud­ies with a para­nor­mal vibe, a re­verse spoof ap­proach whereby sub­jects (ghosts, su­per­heroes, alien in­vaders) usu­ally played tongue-in-cheek are pre­sented in high se­ri­ous­ness, through in­tense, an­guished cen­tral per­for­mances from es­tab­lished male movie stars, and the sort of last-reel twists as­so­ci­ated with The Twi­light Zone (all Shya­malan’s other traits can be found in Rod Ser­ling, as it hap­pens). One sign of Shya­malan’s suc­cess is that other peo­ple started mak­ing M. Night Shya­malan-type movies: Joel Schu­macher with The Num­ber 23, Alex Proyas with Know­ing.

Per­haps as a re­sponse to be­com­ing an im­itable brand and per­haps down to the muted (and some­times pe­cu­liarly hos­tile) re­sponse to

The Vil­lage, Lady In The Wa­ter and The Hap­pen­ing (all in­ter­est­ing films), Shya­malan moved away from his per­sonal cin­ema to take shots at fan­tasy

(The Last Air­ben­der), sci-fi (Af­ter Earth) and found-footage shocker (The Visit). With Split, he re­turns to ‘Night Clas­sic’ mode. We’re back in som­bre Philadel­phia where soft-spo­ken, well­heeled folks go qui­etly mad and a psy­cho thriller plot evolves into some­thing weirder on the boilinga-frog prin­ci­ple of slowly adding bizarre, freak­ish el­e­ments to an ex­treme case study. This time, per­haps frus­trated by the at­ten­tion paid to his most eas­ily par­o­died habit, Shya­malan holds off on a twist in favour of a mea­sured de­vel­op­ment of a far-out premise, though an in­tensely fansat­is­fy­ing de­vel­op­ment pops up near the end.

All ac­tors want to play Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Mcavoy seizes with ob­vi­ous rel­ish on the role of one man with 23 per­son­al­i­ties due to be usurped by a 24th who is more an­i­mal than man. Head finely stub­bled as his Pro­fes­sor X cut grows out, he uses a few props (glasses, a woolly hat) but mostly con­veys Kevin’s al­ters — who range from a gay fash­ion de­signer through an OCD care­taker and a sin­is­ter Bri­tish ma­tri­arch to a tit­ter­ing child — with changes of ex­pres­sion and voice. It’s a show-off tour de force, and Mcavoy is daz­zling through­out — funny, creepy, threat­en­ing, pa­thetic and mon­strous by turns. Note es­pe­cially set-pieces like his per­fectly un­co­or­di­nated de­mon­stra­tion of what a nine-year-old might think are rad­i­cal dance moves, and the un­set­tling mo­ments where one of Kevin’s more con­trolled, sin­is­ter per­son­al­i­ties im­per­son­ates a more open, ap­peal­ing one to re­as­sure his an­a­lyst (Betty Buck­ley) that things aren’t go­ing south in his skull.

As of­ten with Shya­malan, the ac­tual plot is less im­por­tant than the char­ac­ter busi­ness. Even Kevin loses in­ter­est in two of his young cap­tives, who get shoved into store­rooms as mis­fit Casey (Tay­lor-joy) emerges as the hero­ine, re­al­is­ing she’s most likely to sur­vive by en­gag­ing with her cap­tor than by crawl­ing through ven­ti­la­tion ducts or re­ly­ing on teen-princess karate lessons. That Casey’s life ex­pe­ri­ence has pre­pared her for the or­deal is es­tab­lished in tact­ful, un­set­tling mi­croflash­backs which fea­ture stand­out work from Izzie Cof­fey, whose wide eyes per­fectly match Tay­lor­joy’s. Af­ter The Witch and Morgan, Tay­lor-joy is shap­ing up as the weird chick of her gen­er­a­tion — but she has to work as hard as her char­ac­ter to find her screen-space here when her co-star is busily up­stag­ing him­self, let alone her.

VER­DICT This psy­cho-thriller show­cases an awards-wor­thy per­for­mance from James Mcavoy. Shya­malan pa­pers over plot-holes with dry black hu­mour and well-judged sus­pense, and — as al­ways — holds back some sur­prises.

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