A pair of good-looking, mysterious strangers ensconce themselves in a boutique hotel room and proceed to go after each other sexually, verbally and psychologically in the taught, tartly written independently produced two-hander “Embedded.” The directorial debut of prolific and celebrated Australian playwright, novelist and screenwriter Stephen Sewell, this is a unique and demanding work, reflective of his distinctive approach to theatre-making, that will strongly appeal to film-goers who think about their place in what one character calls “the juggernaut of history.”
Prior to the opening shot, wound-up war correspondent Frank Russell (Nick Barka) has successfully picked up the beautiful British international relations expert Madeline (Laura Gordon) at a never-seen World Bank conference reception in the lobby. Their magnetism is instant (and, fleetingly, full-frontal), but their one-night stand — or, as Frank bitterly calls it, his “furlough” — blossoms into a marathon session, fuelled by booze and drugs, of debates involving mortality, geo-political instability, regrets, ambition and hostility. They argue, have sex, shower, repeat.
Before long it becomes obvious there’s something else going on here. First of all, if they hate each other so much, why don’t they just leave? (They do take a few brief forays, but always return to the room.) Second, how do they — and the audience — believe they truly are who they say they are?
In Frank’s case, flashbacks to a high-pressure and ultimately traumatic tour with an American special forces unit in Mali shed light on his desperate, high-strung demeanor. As for Madeline, all we can go by is what she says. And she says quite a lot, sharing personal trauma and alternately goading and seducing Frank. Gradually, a possible endgame comes into view. As the sexual gamesmanship grows more serious, something has to give. And it does. “Don’t go looking for things you don’t want to find out,” one says to the other.
Sewell, who was script editor on “Chopper,” author of the highly-regarded 1998 Australian film “The Boys” and is head of writing for performance at Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Art, writes with a combustible blend of transgressive passion and political commitment that demand a sturdy vessel for delivery (his just-opened new play “The Olympians” speculates an Australian athletic bacchanalia on the last night of the Rio Olympics).
In that sense, “Embedded” is a more diamond-like work, significantly smaller in stature but just as unyielding. He is ably aided and abetted by the Ben Mendelsohn-ish Barka and Gordon, whose balancing act between willing partner and femme fatale is precisely calibrated (perhaps it helps that they’re a couple in real life).
Rhiannon Bannenberg’s cinematography, with its playful use of reflective surfaces, mirrors the couple’s duplicity, whilst Karla Urizar’s finely detailed production and costume design (the film was shot entirely in and around Sydney) belies the modest budget to convincing effect.
“You know what’s wrong with the Big Picture?” Frank muses at one point, neatly summing up Sewell’s provocative worldview and the thrust of “Embedded.” “Nobody can live inside it because we’re only little people.”