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Creature (2023): Film Review

The feverish brainchild of Asif Kapadia and Akram Khan, Creature is an invigorating dance film that roars with vigour.

Creature starts in an intriguing way. Within a remote, abandoned research station in the Arctic, something stirs. Droning, dread-drenched music swells like a thrum from the earth as this body, dwarfed in darkness, snaps into life. From here, the figure – a topless, dirty man wearing bedraggled trousers and nothing else – starts to move, uneasily at first but with an ever-increasing fluency. With its enthralling dance sequences, inventive choreography, and curious intrigue, this opening captures the essence of Creature aptly. This National Ballet Company production, conjured from the creative depths of choreographer Akram Khan and director Asif Kapadia, requires some patience over its relatively short runtime due to its lack of dialogue, but the experience is always compelling, as we are guided through a feverish tale of identity, power and community.

Based on his most recent output of work, Creature is a somewhat surprising venture for Kapadia to take on, even taking into account his earlier work in fiction films. However, the filmmaker, who is best known for his Oscar-winning contributions to the documentary genre with films such as Senna (2010) and Amy (2015), is always keen to push his own boundaries, to work on fresh challenges with differing qualities. Creature certainly fits that bill. The titular Creature (Jeffrey Cirio) is trapped in this dilapidated station. There are others dressed in a similar way to him and who carry themselves with a weariness created by enforced labour; there is a cleaner (Erina Takahasi) who sees them with compassion; there is a captain (Ken Saruhasi) who treats them with mild care; and there is the dominant major (Fabian Reimair), an imposing man with a threatening aura who struts and circles around the other characters within the space.

Creature is driven by an unbridled dynamism. Khan’s stage direction ensures there is always something engaging going on, and his utilisation of the entire space is impressive. There is a furtive kineticism to how scenes play out, given this strength by terrific choreography from Khan and a cinematic lens from Kapadia, although the latter occasionally includes technical visual cues that are unnecessary. And at the heart of Creature ’s ambiguous but engaging story are the bodies of the masses. The performers flit between graceful, emotive dances to abnormal, alienlike jigs, signifying Creature ’s blend of fantasy and realism. As the Creature, Cirio shines with a performance that is built on his emotive facial expressions as much as it is his sublime dancing. His wonder and fear, which he flits between throughout Creature, solidifies the film’s admittedly vague narrative.

loud and clear reviews creature film ballet bfi
Jeffrey Cirio in Creature (BFI Distribution and English National Ballet)

Creature shines on a technical level. Despite some odd stylistic choices, Kapadia’s direction is impressive, and allows us to build a personal relationship with the characters and events on stage; close-ups of the Creature’s face give us a sense of immediacy and intimacy, whilst wide shots of rippling figures in imposing darkness strike notes of isolation. Similarly, lighting is utilised effectively to signal changing moods. Swift editing ensures the visuals move at pace with the breathless dancing, with all these elements forming to give Creature an undeniably cinematic tone.

Despite having some memorable set pieces – a terrific middle section plays out like a surreal classic Hollywood romance – Creature struggles to translate its initial intrigue into a truly cathartic release. Despite this, there is a terrific vitality maintained throughout the film. Dance styles shift with changing moods whilst primitive, stifled words spoken by Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings) frequently cut through the immense score by Vincent Lamagna.

The ambiguous nature of Creature might frustrate some, but themes of discovery, control, power, religion, and even colonialism are clear to see, even if they sometimes remain tantalisingly underdeveloped. Stripped of their voices but not their minds, these human bodies find expression in basic movement as they interact with one another. The result is a scintillating, winning experience for us as viewers.

Creature will be released in cinemas in the UK and Ireland on 24 February, 2023.

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