Any conspiracy film by definition has to hold back from its audience. If the audience knows everything, there’s no real mystery. There’s no suspense, and the film has to fall back on its all-too-often insipid characters. The catch is that there’s only so many ways to pull off a conspiracy, and so fans of the genre eventually come to see things very far in advance. It speaks volumes about Unknown that it was halfway over before I figured out what was going on.
Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) is a biotechnology researcher at Langemore University. He’s going to an international conference held in Berlin, on the personal invitation of the keynote speaker, Professor Bressler (Sebastian Koch), and he’s brought along his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones). Unfortunately, he accidentally leaves behind his briefcase when getting into the taxi from the airport. At the hotel, he realizes the error and leaves his wife to check in while he returns to the airport to find it. Even more unfortunately, on the way back there is an accident. His taxi swerves off a bridge and into the Spree. His driver, Gina (Diane Kruger), pulls him from the car and onto the bank before slipping away.
It is four days later when Martin wakes up from his coma in a German hospital. His memory is hazy, but he can at least recall his identity, though he has nothing on him to verify it. He’s still not in great shape, but when he recalls being in Berlin for the conference he insists on returning to the hotel to find Liz, who must be extremely lost and confused on her own in a foreign city. But when he finds her, she doesn’t seem to recognize him, and another man (Aidan Quinn) claims to be the real Martin Harris. Of course, since this interloper has a passport and everything, and Liz backs his story, Martin is stuck.
Martin is left on his own to figure out what exactly is going on. He manages to find Gina and enlist her aid, as well as that of a former Stasi officer turned private investigator (Bruno Ganz). And they’re all pretty sure that he’s not just crazy, since there also seem to be a couple ruthless assassins (Olivier Schneider and Stipe Erceg) on his tail. But just who is the real Martin Harris, and why is the other one claiming to be him anyway?
Director Jaume Collet-Serra does an excellent job of setting the atmosphere. The late-November setting comes across in the bleak, grey palette, giving an aura of hopeless desperation. And the device he uses for Martin’s fragmented flashbacks of memory is jarring as it draws the audience further and further in. The action scenes are very well-done, particularly the centerpiece car chase through downtown Berlin that quickly degenerates into an impressive demolition derby.
The downside is that none of the characters are particularly deep. Martin is the most fully-developed, and yet he’s basically the same determined Liam Neeson stock character we’ve seen before in Taken, for example. Still, most everyone plays their roles capably, with the exception of January Jones. I’d been hoping that her flat, uninspired performance in Mad Men was in part due to how that role was written, but no such luck. She has very little to do here besides looking pretty, but whenever she does it’s painfully stilted and awkward. Kruger, on the other hand, is excellent as usual, despite her less-than-glamorous presentation.
But at its heart this is a conspiracy movie, and the resolution is a credit to the pen of Didier Van Cauwelaert, the author of the original novel, Hors de moi. It isn’t often that it takes me this long to catch on, and I’m suitably impressed by the talent to take an original premise and render it carefully enough to be engaging without giving the game away.
Worth it: definitely.
Bechdel test: fail.