"Julia's Eyes" looks fine and has fun with some interesting ideas, but stumbles.

An eager-to-please, stylish chiller that leads the viewer up a satisfying number of blind alleys, “Julia’s Eyes” looks fine and has fun with some interesting ideas, but finally stumbles by sacrificing credibility in service to effect. Some terrific atmospherics and a first-rate central perf from the dependable Belen Rueda (“The Orphanage”) as a woman slowly going blind as she pursues the truth about her sister’s death narrowly fail to compensate for an over-tangled, want-it-all plotline that falls apart after an hour, while emotional punch is largely missing. “Eyes” nonetheless still shines brightly enough to seduce offshore buyers.

Opening scenes show Julia’s sister Sara (also played by Rueda) hanging herself. The cops, headed by Inspector Dimas (Francesc Orella), do not suspect foul play, but Julia, aided by her skeptical husband Isaac (Lluis Homar) is determined to investigate further.

Like Sara did, Julia suffers from a degenerative eye condition that worsens under stress. Her investigations initially lead her to Sara’s creepy neighbor, Blasco (Boris Ruiz) and his daughter Lia (Andrea Hermosa), as well as the elderly Soledad (Julia Gutierrez Caba).

In the first of several scenes that make a nice point about viewer voyeurism, Julia eavesdrops on a conversation between some women at a center for the blind. One of them becomes aware of the presence of a man, who is also listening, but whether he exists or is simply a vision is, for a while, kept interestingly open.

Unfortunate events start to pile up at an implausible rate. The pacing through much of the second half is breathless, while the script is not always elegant in solving the puzzles it sets for itself. Julia follows Sara’s footsteps out to a holiday resort, where she meets the aging caretaker Crespulo (Joan Dalmau), who mutters cryptically about invisibility.

Isaac then disappears; back at Sara’s house, Julia discovers his fate. But the more she knows, the less she sees, and Julia is now blind, causing Rueda to spend much of the remainder playing with bandages over her eyes.

Open-eyed viewers will suspect early on who (probably) dunnit, and when the moment of revelation arrives, their expectations are disappointingly confirmed. The last 20 minutes are deja vu cat and mouse, devoid of the elegant, shadowy ambiguities that distinguished the pic in the earlier going, while the explanation for the criminal’s abilities will be hard for many to swallow.

Visually, and appropriately given that it’s about sight, the pic is enthralling, lending new meaning to the term “shades of gray.” Lensing, lighting and digital effects work together to plunge the viewer, often uncomfortably, into Julia’s murky world, allowing the helmer to play some enjoyable games over what she — and so the spectator — is seeing, or not seeing.

During one crucial, bravura sequence, the face of a key character is hidden from the viewer, which would feel like a cheap trick if it didn’t make for such a tidy thematic fit.

As in “The Orphanage” — the marketing makes much of the production connections between the two films — Rueda commits herself body and soul to the role of a damaged woman seeking redemption and truth, brilliantly managing to keep Julia dramatically alive even when acting with bandaged eyes, and getting across the full force of her frustration and fear. Other perfs cannot match hers, the fact that the script prioritizes plot over character giving them too little to work with.

Much of the strength of “The Orphanage” was that it was grounded in the powerful mother-son bond. But in this film, such emotional depth and psychological subtlety are lacking, and a few scenes of intimacy between Julia and Isaac are not enough to compensate.

The score is efficient but overused. Soundwork is excellent, leading the viewer easily through some scenes of total darkness, and generally enhancing the chills. Pic features moments of light gore.

Julia's Eyes

Spain

Production

A Universal Pictures Intl. Spain release of a Rodar y Rodar, Antena 3 Films production in association with TVC, with the participation of Mesfilms, Canal Plus, Antena 3. (International Sales: DeAPlaneta Intl., Madrid). Produced by Joaquin Padro, Mar Targarona, Guillermo Del Toro, Mercedes Gamero. Executive producer, Ricardo Garcia, Cruz Rodriguez. Directed by Guillem Morales. Screenplay, Morales, Oriol Paulo.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Oscar Faura; editor, Joan Manel Vilaseca; music, Fernando Velazquez; art director, Balter Gallart; sound (Dolby Digital), Oriol Tarrago. Reviewed at Universal screening room, Madrid, Aug. 25, 2010. (In Toronto Film Festival -- Special Presentations.) Running time: 112 MIN.

With

Belen Rueda, Lluis Homar, Pablo Derqui, Francesc Orella, Joan Dalmau, Boris Ruiz, Andrea Hermosa, Julia Gutierrez Caba.

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