Vivarium

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots in Lorcan Finnegan’s science fiction film Vivarium
"Lorcan Finnegan never allows us to lose sight of the absurdity of the situation, nor of the real life absurdities that it points up." | Photo: Screen Ireland

If you've struggled with being trapped at home due to Covid-19, you're about to find out just how much worse it could be. When young schoolteacher Gemma (Imogen Poots) and gardener Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) accept an invitation to go and view a show home on a new estate, they find themselves trapped in a suburban dream that seems impossible to escape.

A high concept piece of science fiction which benefits from stylish production design, Vivarium risks coming across as a one-trick pony. It needs to build up slowly, letting us feel something of its protagonists' frustration at their predicament, and doing this without completely alienating the audience is difficult, especially after the introduction of a third party whose behaviour is designed to create stress. These scenes are probably a little too lengthy in total and some viewers will find the film insufferable as a result. There is a larger concept here, however, for those prepared to stick with it; and if in the end it seems to lack sufficient meaning to justify all that has happened, it might have succeeded.

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Most of the heavy lifting is done by Poots, who delivers the more naturalistic of the two central performances whilst Tom spirals into the type of obsessive behaviour sometimes seen in animals in captivity, recalling some of Ted Hughes' observations about zoos. Testing the limits of their environment, the two go to extremes very early on so that it's genuinely difficult for viewers to come up with things they haven't tried. There's a fair bit of comedy built into this and director Lorcan Finnegan never allows us to lose sight of the absurdity of the situation, nor of the real life absurdities that it points up. When the film shifts gears in the final act there's a real moment of shock, but its bleakest moment is saved for the very end as the question at its heart becomes more expansive, even less forgiving.

Philip Murphy's landscape of little green houses is reminiscent of any number of developments across states like New Mexico and Arizona, and increasingly of England, if not quite on the same scale. As with all the most effective work of its kind, Vivarium is only slightly abstracted from reality. You might find it a tough watch if you're stuck at home yourself, but the humour provides some relief, as do the moments of tenderness between characters trying to hold onto something real in one another and trying to avoid being shaped by their environment. As instinct and reason come into conflict, it may be that neither is enough.

Reviewed on: 24 Mar 2020
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Vivarium packshot
In search of a starter home, a young couple follow a mysterious estate agent and get trapped in a strange housing development.

Director: Lorcan Finnegan

Writer: Lorcan Finnegan, Garret Shanley, Garret Shanley

Starring: Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Jonathan Aris, Olga Wehrly, Danielle Ryan, Senan Jennings, Molly McCann, Eanna Hardwicke, Shana Hart, Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Jonathan Aris, Olga Wehrly, Danielle Ryan, Senan Jennings

Year: 2019

Runtime: 97 minutes

Country: Ireland, Belgium, Denmark


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