‘About Elly…’ is a compelling drama set in Iran about a group of friends and how their relationships unravel when one of their party goes missing during a weekend break.
Watching the first 30 minutes you could almost believe you’re in for a low budget thriller or even a horror film – all the tropes are there, from the group of young couples heading to a remote area for a weekend vacation, only to find the single available cabin is in a derelict state behind padlocked gates. The caretaker warns them to keep the doors and windows locked. It’s quickly established there’s no mobile phone signal. As we watch the group settle in for the weekend, despite their easy going camaraderie there’s a sense of unease that something is going to go wrong.
But this is a far more subtle film than you’ve been led to expect. There is a single dramatic event driving the film – the disappearance of the titular Elly the following afternoon. No-one is sure what’s happened to her, but rather than playing up the thriller elements the film instead concentrates on how the group are affected personally, with recriminations flying between them and guilty admissions coming to the surface.
The direction is unfussy and naturalistic, giving the excellent ensemble cast plenty of space to develop their characters – not every character is particularly likeable, but they all feel believable. There’s a bit of convoluted plotting to position the characters into an unwinnable moral dilemma (the cover story they decide to tell Elly’s family is especially baffling). But the film never descends into melodrama and the tension builds naturally from the relationships between the characters rather than outside events or unlikely twists.
Of course the great thing about Around the World in 80 Films is that we’re getting to watch these stories told against the backdrop of unfamiliar settings and cultural norms. The small, seemingly innocent white lies told in ‘About Elly’ might not have had such serious consequences in the UK, but in a society which places family and religious values as highly as Iran we see how even the smallest moral compromises can lead to a devastating loss of honour. Writer/ director Asghar Farhadi explored similar themes in his 2011 Oscar winner ‘A Separation’ – well worth seeking out for those who enjoyed this film.