Dead Unicorns - film review

Updated: Mar 24

★★★

Directed by #IanFielding

Written by #IanFielding

Starring: #MichelleCrane, #RosalindStockwell, #AlistairFindlay, #RebeccaCalienda

Film review by Amber Jackson

When Amy (Michelle Crane) learns that her mentor has vanished without a trace, she is determined to discover the truth. What she uncovers instead is far more than she bargained for. Dead Unicorns is described as a mysterious and murky representation of the contemporary art world, oozing with falsifications and murder. Yet, it is also tainted by a problematic narrative that asks its audience to consider how contemporary film should take care to represent women.


Ian Fielding’s direction is fascinating. Albeit several jarring “show don’t tell” moments surrounding the title meaning, the actual structure of the film is entirely unique, the scene transitions reminiscent of those included in Star Wars. The narrative is confusing to follow at first, with characters floating through the production with commentary on art and each other. Only when it reaches the hour mark does the plot begin to deepen. The audience are introduced to some murderous escorts, which as a scene does not make much sense and can only be described as an interlude with balloons (which we learn are not sexy). Some of the extra characters, such as these women, or Jack (Gareth Bennett-Ryan), do not seem to have much purpose within the film. Although they act well, they add nothing much to the plot, making it lack in fluidity.


To add to the confusion, the audio is inconsistent throughout the film, loud in some parts and too quiet in others, making some scenes hard to follow. Yet there is a surreal edge to the score that makes the music seem almost ironic within the supposed thriller. Classical ballet and opera music encompass key scenes which, if deliberate, makes the contemporary art thriller even more uncanny. Abrupt music changes, upon reflection, made for an uncomfortable atmosphere, throwing the audience’s expectations to the wind. This creates an indistinct atmosphere for protagonist Amy, as what is real life versus her nightmarish dreamscapes is not very distinct. The interweaving of natural scenery and contrasting urban modernity creates an unnatural feel to the film. Each image goes against the last, with Fielding making audiences question what they believe art is.


This film offers a conflicting argument regarding its presentation of women with the artistic images that it offers. Yes, Amy is a strong female lead and the women around her are power-hungry and dominant, but it seems to slightly miss the mark and this is where the film suffers. The Male Gaze seems to shroud Amy and her female counterparts under a veil of sexualisation that is labelled ironically as art. Sin is blatantly expressed through colour, as red imagery perforates every scene. Amy herself is often seen wearing red for example, along with having red props very obviously placed in view. The lack of subtlety in the cinematography invites audiences to speculate over what exactly is being commented on here.


Queer female characters are badly represented in the film’s vision of women; even if they are not explicitly gay, there is a negative implication that is not appreciated. Historically, queer female characters in film were often portrayed as psychotic or otherwise unstable, to further persecute gay people. ‘The Celluloid Closet’ documentary (1996, dir. Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman) explores how sexuality was heavily censored in film in the twentieth century and consequently, gay characters were made out to be cold-blooded villains or sexual predators. These types of performances are subtle enough to go over most people’s heads, but for a gay audience, it was blinding. For instance, the audience is told of Eva’s (Ilva Holmes) obsession with Diana (Rosalind Stockwell), a much older woman, before we even meet her. Dead Unicorns illustrates a degree of lesbian obsession that a queer audience cannot ignore. The women in this piece are presented as vindictive and manipulative, in addition to this, and it contributes to their downfall.


Fielding makes good use of the several red herrings and plot twists with sharp camerawork, highlighting that this is ultimately a film about power, control and the unobtainable. The villains Amy encounters are trying to achieve a perfect perception of what they believe to be art and are willing to do whatever it takes to get it. The narrative excels with fantastic one-liners and kaleidoscopic camerawork, yet a conflicting representation of women prevents this film from fully thriving.


Future work from Fielding will hopefully feature strong women again, but hopefully next time their characters will be more conscious of how they will be perceived by marginalized audiences.


#AmberJackson