Review: ‘Smallpox’

Produced in documentary style to yield the maximum "holy crap" effect, this British production about a smallpox pandemic (originally broadcast in Blighty in 2002) has been deftly adapted for U.S. consumption.

Produced in documentary style to yield the maximum “holy crap” effect, this British production about a smallpox pandemic (originally broadcast in Blighty in 2002) has been deftly adapted for U.S. consumption. Despite some questions about the validity of the film’s scenario after its debut in the U.K., it’s nonetheless a chilling production sure to amp up paranoia about what the movie labels “weapons of mass casualties.”

In the tradition of such projects as “Special Bulletin” as well as HBO’s upcoming “Dirty War,” “Smallpox” explores a nightmare scenario meant to be all the more plausible thanks to its pseudo-docu style. Pic looks back (yes, somewhat comfortingly, back) at a devastating 2002 smallpox outbreak initiated by a shadowy terrorist that killed millions worldwide.

Featuring “interviews” with health officials and videotape of events, the narrative documents the slow-growing epidemic as well as the rioting and panic that ensued. Infrastructures collapse in Third World nations, vaccine shortages plague even the industrial powers, and doctors recall entering warehouses full of bodies that reeked of “disinfectant and rotting flesh.”

Directed by Daniel Percival, who co-wrote with producer Simon Chinn, “Smallpox” elicits solid performances from a convincing cast, whom few viewers in the U.S. will recognize, playing disease and law-enforcement specialists, as an authentic-sounding narrator (Brian Cox) describes the infection’s development. Notably, the use of music and editing to augment the tension is very reminiscent of the liberties currently taken by news and docu filmmakers.

That said, the movie is more convincing in some places than others. At times, the “officials” interviewed come across as too forthcoming, given the second-guessing that would have followed such horrific circumstances, and a subplot involving a family meant to personalize the story (the son chronicles what transpires via homevideo) falls mostly flat.

“Smallpox” marks the first of several such U.K. productions that will be migrating to FX, which clearly thinks a segment of the audience will gravitate to these fictional nightmare visions in the same way the Cold War gave rise to “Fail-Safe.”

Still, faced with pustules and pestilence, there’s a strong impulse to look away as well. Besides, if viewers really want to be scared, they need only flip to the sister Fox News Channel for the latest “news alert,” set to music every bit as dramatic and calibrated to induce anxiety.

Smallpox

FX, Sun. Jan. 2, 8 p.m.

Production

Filmed in New York and London by Wall to Wall in association with the BBC and Granada Intl. Executive producer, Jonathan Hewes; producer, Simon Chinn; line producer, Helena Tait; director, Daniel Percival; writers, Percival, Chinn;

Crew

Camera, Graham Smith; editor, Jason Savage; music, Andy Price; casting, Dominic Andreoli, Jeremy Zimmermann. 120 MIN.

Cast

Lesley Peters - Leigh Zimmerman Jack Hill - Bolen High Kathleen O'Reilly - Tara Hugo Dr. Sam Wiseman - Edward Lewin Dr. Richard Benson - Steven Crossley Narrator - Brian Cox
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