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By Jonahh Oestreich • March 4th, 2011
Static Mass Rating: 3/5UNKNOWN (Cinema)
Warner Bros. | Optimum Releasing 

Release date (UK): March 4th, 2011
Running time: 113 Minutes
Certificate: (UK): 12A

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Liam Neeson, January Jones, Diane Kruger, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella


“This is a novel that really,
really wants to be a movie.”
Sophie Harrison
(New York Times Book Review, 2005)

Didier van Cauwelaert’s novel Out Of My Head (2005) — the blueprint for Jaume Collet-Serra’s movie — has received enthusiastic reviews, not least for its captivating twists and a finale that would perplex even die-hard thriller fans. Since I count myself to them I was eager to see Unknown, despite the mood and style of trailer and clips which reminded me of Taken (2008).

Seasoned thriller fans might have a hard time following charismatic Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) through the loop-holes of the movie adaptation. One of my biggest joys in watching films like Unknown is to pinpoint the villain before Unknownthe hero does, and to figure out the mystery on my own. However, this only ever works if the storyteller doesn’t pull one “stunt” too many, or has a character explain the backstory of what’s happening rather than telling it with the story.

The more so when the basic plot is rather straight-forward. After a terrible accident, scientist Dr. Harris spends 4 days in a Berlin hospital. When he wakes up from his coma, Harris is confronted with an unsettling truth: The world has amnesia about him (quote director Collet-Serra). Someone else has taken his Unknownidentity and apparently shares identical memories, his wife (January Jones) doesn’t know him, the authorities don’t believe him, and eventually he is hunted by mysterious assassins.

At this point we don’t have many clues to go by, other than the fact Harris and his wife were on their way to a biotechnology conference in the German capital which, in this day and age, tends to be a fateful premise. Apart from that, I’m pretty much left in the dark and bound by Collet-Serra’s promise that there are clues all the time that ultimately will fall into place:

“I like movies with a twist that I cannot figure out while I’m reading the script, and that’s one of them.”

Collet-Serra also appears to have a weakness for Murphy’s Law, which would explain the bold exercises on cause-and-effect, especially in the opening scenes. One of them is the mind-boggling insight that mobile phones don’t always have reception in Berlin so Dr. Harris can’t call his wife — a mishap with dire consequences. I spent many years of my life in Berlin and Unknownone of the things I can’t remember happening to me is losing reception on my mobile phone, not in a taxi or anywhere else in the open anyway. Or was I just lucky?

Maybe Berlin is a place where no one questions the absurd. After all, the city has a long history of extreme events. Not to spoil anything, but when illegal immigrant Gina (Diane Kruger), Harris’ taxi driver and saviour, takes home the mysterious man with not much of an identity, I wondered if such an act of blind confidence was the only way to get the hero out of the cold.

Though not watertight, Unknown is a pretty entertaining thriller with brilliant performances and a hot shot of irony. Liam Neeson, turning 60 next year, seems to acquire a taste for actioners (Taken, 2008) in conjunction with pretty complicated characters (After.Life, 2009) or some dry humour (A-Team, 2010).

Aapparently he had a lot of fun filming the action scenes for Unknown, saying about the clash with Aidan Quinn (who plays Neeson’s nemesis) they both were like “guys in their fifties pretending to be 30-year-olds”. But Neeson Unknownadmits he’s done a lot of training for the movie so we can safely assume he’s flexing his muscles for real.

One of the most compelling characters in the film is the German Mr. Jürgen, a former officer for the “Stasi” (once the East German State Security Service), played by German star Bruno Ganz (Adolf Hitler in Downfall, 2004). I can’t imagine anyone else exploring truth and identity more plausible than a man who seems to be the epitome of conspiracies.

Whether or not you like the revealing twist and the point of it all, Unknown is a more or less evocative take on the question “What makes us who we are?” — even if the quest for answers takes a few bizarre turns.

Jonahh Oestreich

Jonahh Oestreich

One of the Editors in Chief and our webmaster, Jonahh has been working in the media industry for over 20 years, mainly in television, design and art. As a boy, he made his first short film with an 8mm camera and the help of his father. His obsession with (moving) images and stories hasn’t faded since.

You can follow Jonahh on Twitter @Jonahh_O.

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