Cults make for inherently compelling settings, the chance to explore our religious anxieties and vices within a dramatically convenient microcosm of society. The cult at the heart of The Colony, formerly known as Colonia, has it all: religious fervour, iron discipline, and corruption running right to its core. It’s no surprise, then, that the film is at its best when trapped within the commune’s walls, and stumbles when let loose in the wider world.
The Colony takes for its setting the frighteningly real ‘Colonia Dignidad’, a conservative Christian cult founded by German Paul Schäfer in the south of Chile. Schäfer ran the site – occupied mostly by a mix of Germans and Chileans – from its 1961 founding until he fled the country in 1997, hounded by allegations of persistent child abuse.
Schäfer is captivatingly portrayed by Michael Nyqvist, but for its protagonists The Colony takes more creative liberties. Daniel Brühl is a German activist, conveniently also named Daniel, arrested by General Pinochet’s forces in Santiago during his 1973 coup. Emma Watson is his flight attendant girlfriend, Lena, who upon learning that he has been shipped off to Colonia Dignidad commits to entering the camp herself to try and bust him out.
Most of this early set-up is awkward and heavy-handed, the film at pains to quickly paint its characters in broad strokes and establish their romance, all while scrambling to fill modern viewers in on the political mores of early ‘70s Chile. It’s a dispiriting start, but the moment Lena enters the colony, the film changes gears.
Gone is the warm glow of Santiago, the world taking on a new chill. Here women are separated from men, children from families. There’s hard farm work during the day, and a stark dormitory and a sleeping pill at night. Women are quickly established as secondary citizens – casually branded “stinking sluts,” beaten when they step out of line. And ruling it all is Nyqvist’s Schäfer, a dead-eyed lizard of a man, paternal and dictatorial; comforting one moment, vicious the next.
The Colony is compelling when it explores and unpacks Colonia Dignidad, carefully building to its greatest horrors, teasing and hiding others, and never letting the pervasive sense of threat and dread drop. But as much as it works as a thriller, it fails as a romance. Watson and Brühl share little chemistry – though at least the script necessitates that they stay apart for most of the running time. Much of the fault here must lie with Watson, who seems stilted and awkward, making heavy work out of straightforward dialogue.
When Lena and Daniel make their eventual climactic escape, the film once again finds itself stumbling, a rather forced chase sequence offering a poor alternative to the uneasy dread of the colony. It’s hard not to feel that The Colony doesn’t know quite what it wants to be, heartfelt romance or heart pounding thriller, and it never quite hits either note just right – but Nyqvist is worth the price of admission alone.
The Colony is available in cinemas and on digital through We Are Colony from July 1st.
Words by Dominic Preston