It is almost impossible to read the synopsis for Level 16 and not think of The Handmaid’s Tale. Set in a dystopian future, the movie is about a boarding school for girls. The Vestalis Academy teaches its students about the virtues of femininity. As it turns out, the film is less like Margaret Atwood’s novel and more like and episode of The Twilight Zone. The school is strict, the promised reward is great, and the movie’s strong premise never quite pans out.
Director Danishka Esterhazy does some great work. The film’s initial shot is a well done overhead that demonstrates what is to come. There are also some great moments involving lighting and shadow that really stand out. Esterhazy does a great job of setting shots up. Much of Level 16’s beauty is found in its simplicity and creativity.
The film’s colors also add to the film. Grey is the most dominant color and is used effectively. The girls live a very ordered life. There is little free time and the most fun they have is watching “moving pictures” they know all the words to. The drab color scheme accentuates the monotony of their lives. When the film does show flashes of color, it is deep blues and reds. Again, the colors do an excellent job of mirroring the action of the moment. Blue also adds to the tension while red warns of imminent danger. Very few films use color this effectively.
Where Esterhazy’s direction drops off is during Level 16’s third act. It is not that it looks bad. The shots are used do a great job of conveying all of the action. There is also a great scene that is filled with tension as the audience wonders what is going on. The problem is that things are a little to generic. The last shot of the movie is the best example. It is supposed to be a heartfelt moment that signifies many things. It looks very much like a shot out of a music video or perfume commercial.
Level 16 has a great plot. The Vestalis Academy is filled with so many secrets. Each one is given just enough time to engage the interest of the audience. Why is the 16th level so important? What happens when you are sent downstairs? How much does Sophia know and how? These are just a few questions that are brought up. What seems initially seems like another dystopian future story becomes a mystery.
This is also the movie’s greatest flaw. While there are many intriguing questions, nothing is given a satisfactory resolution. The audience is given a pretty strong idea early on what the Academy is up to. When the full revelation is made, it is anticlimactic and leaves little impact. This happens with almost mystery that is introduced. There is a great moment involving Vivien that is a great payoff. Unfortunately, it is followed by an off screen incident that essentially makes Vivien’s victory a Pyrrhic one.
The writing is also very inconsistent. The film’s opening shows a traumatic experience that ended up changing Vivien and shaping her life for the next ten years. There are also constant talks about being sent downstairs to be punished. Vivien even references her horrible experience there. During the film’s frantic finale, it is revealed that a trip downstairs is not one people ever return from. This is validated by a comment made by Miss Brixil. This is the most glaring example, but there are many more.
(If you are going in expecting to see a movie about females removing the shackles of a patriarchal society, Level 16 is not the movie for you. The main characters could have just as easily been young boys and the plot would not have skipped a beat. This does not change the quality or message of the movie, but the comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale only run skin deep.)
The acting is the best part of the film. The entire cast does a great job in their roles. The girls do an excellent job of playing their virtuous roles, while the villains are appropriately underhanded. Katie Douglas excels in her role as Vivien. She packs a lot of emotion in part and is the highlight of the film.
Level 16 has lots of great ideas. It is an interesting setting filled with intriguing mysteries. Unfortunately, the movie’s writing is unable to keep up with everything. Even stellar performances from the entire cast are not enough cover for the film’s glaring flaws. The premise is there for a great hour of television, but a full length movie is a little much.