Peripheral

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Peripheral
"A smart piece of work."

Bobbi (Hannah Arterton) has written a bestseller. More than that, she has written a book that has inspired a generation. Unfortunately what it has inspired them to do is slash their arms and riot in the streets. As a result, Bobbi, a former junkie who has found herself penniless despite her success, is hiding away in a freezing flat, trying to avoid a stalker, trying to find the mental stability she needs to start writing again. She's under increasing pressure from her publisher, though quite what the publisher wants from her isn't clear. Is it an expansion of the synopsis she offered? Is it her raw natural talent, tailored to fit a niche? Is it only her name?

The relationship between writer, writing process and finished book is a highly individual thing, yet ever since the invention of the first word processor, tech companies have been hell bent on developing something that will package, streamline and automate it. Unsurprisingly, many writers resist. Bobbi is one of those old fashioned types who feels happiest with a typewriter, notwithstanding the extra work it creates for her poor editor. But Bobbi is also desperate - for food, for heating - so her publisher is in a position to insist that she get an upgrade.

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The new machine is colossal. It dominates the room with its multi-layered display, its obscure ergonomic keyboard, a mass of cables, ports and boxes whose purpose Bobbi cannot guess. It fixes her spelling as she writes, bringing it into line with the demands of the US market as it does so, whether she likes it or not. It makes grammatical decisions. It substitutes what its algorithms have decided are better words and changes the gender of her protagonist. Gradually she begins to feel that it's writing the book for her, its own way. And that's not the only way in which it seems to be taking control.

Arriving in the same year as Await Further Instructions and Upgrade, Peripheral is part of a new wave of genre films confronting the dangers of technological progress not in the usual Luddite manner but with an acute awareness of just where real problems are creeping in. It owes something to Videodrome and Brazil in its teasing exploration of the intersection between peril and paranoia, fantasy and madness, aided here by the literary theme and the sense that Bobbi has herself been a contributor - albeit perhaps inadvertently - to the creation of the dystopia in which she lives. Then there's the ex boyfriend who asks her to hold drugs for him, testing her commitment to sobriety; and the stalker delivering numbered VHS tapes; and the sleazy support guy from the computer company. It becomes harder and harder for her to find the mental space in which to write, and she's less and less able to distinguish her own voice.

Balancing the psychological and existential horror with a keen sense of immediate physical threat, Peripheral also supplies a measure of gore to keep the traditionalists happy. Rough and ragged, looking more and more sleep-deprived, Arterton's heroine is equal parts bruised and charismatic in one of those rare roles that permits a young actress to communicate her character's passions wholly through her personality. It's also rare to see working class life and the experience of poverty conveyed so plainly in a film primarily concerned with other topics. Bobbi feels whole and real even as she loses her way, and we are presented with a recognisable world in order that we might properly appreciate the disorientating effect of the threat within it.

Although the plotting isn't as tight as it might have been throughout and there are times when the film relies too much on pre-established tropes, it's a smart piece of work. Writers will particularly appreciate its bitter wit, but its musings on identity are applicable to anyone and very much pertinent today.

Reviewed on: 05 Nov 2018
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An author whose first novel has unexpectedly radicalised a generation is persuaded to use new software to write her second, but her discomfort grows as it becomes more and more intrusive.

Director: Paul Hyett

Writer: Dan Schaffer

Starring: Hannah Arterton, Tom Conti, Rosie Day, Jenny Seagrove, Elliot James Langridge

Year: 2018

Runtime: 89 minutes

Country: UK

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