movie review: Unknown

In the French-made, English-language sleeper Taken, Liam Neeson was a former CIA operative who was (outlandishly) able to thwart a sex-trafficking ring. Audiences responded vociferously to his take-charge character. His latest film, Unknown, was also made in Europe—this time, Berlin—by Spanish-born director Jaume Collet-Serra, and it casts the reliable actor in a role that couldn’t be more different. In this yarn, he loses control of his life, or to be more specific, his identity.

The very Hitchcockian story was taken from a novel by the prolific French author Didier Van Cauwelaert called Out of My Head, adapted by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell (who is the son of David John Moore Cornwell, better known as spy novelist John le Carré). Neeson plays an American college professor who arrives in Berlin with his wife (January Jones) to attend an international conference on biotechnology. But before he can even check into his hotel, a mishap causes him to—

—take a taxi ride, which ends in a catastrophic accident and robs him of his memory. When he regains his mental equilibrium, no one recognizes him—not even his wife. That’s where the plot thickens.

Unknown makes all the right moves, and keeps the viewer guessing its secrets at every twist and turn. It features a good supporting cast including Aidan Quinn, Diane Kruger, Bruno Ganz, and Frank Langella. The scenery is fresh (at least, to my American eyes) and there are some terrific chase scenes staged on the streets and rooftops of Berlin.

And yet, there’s something missing. As curious as I was to watch the story unravel, and learn the answers to its puzzling questions, I never felt emotionally connected. The actors go through their paces, and the director seems to be on top of the story, but I never developed the level of involvement or rooting interest I should have had. (Even in one of Hitchcock’s “lesser” films, Saboteur (1942), you care about the fate of innocent Robert Cummings and want to see him vindicated.)

As a piece of forgettable escapist entertainment, Unknown isn’t bad. But with so many of the right ingredients seemingly in place, I can’t help but feel that it should have been better.


  1. james says:

    The twists were too contrived and implausible. As another reviewer put it, the memory lapses were convenient to making the story intriguing. Too convenient.

  2. William Burns says:

    Unknown worked for the most part. And Neeson gives us an emotional perormance that’s involving and just right. We care about him.
    It’s an intriguing, suspenseful, and exciting film.

  3. Pete says:

    Taken had its moments but I think I had to force myself to think it was better than it actually was. If Unknown is just as viscereal as Taken, then I’m not going to see it for the sake of a few thrills.

  4. MC says:

    I saw Unknown this weekend and felt the same way. Great elements but
    emotionally vacant. You hit the nail on the “head.” What we love about Hitchcock’s characters heros and villains is how he builds the emotional relationship in the audience for each character. We feel that queasy, forboding when Van Damn or Alexander Sebastion discover their betrayal. I didn’t get that feeling during any of the moments in this movie.

  5. AlabamaLiberal says: continues moral week by reviewing Hollywood’s values of violence (The Mechanic’s Gun Love), Excuses for stars to go on vacation (Just Go With It), mocking fat black women (Big Momma’s House III), and sex (TV Review of Skins, Just as Forced and Awkward as Teen Sex). Plus, new mom jokes and Why The Social Network should beat the The King’s Speech

  6. Dan Templeton says:

    Getting connected to a film or a book or almost any story requires that “missing something” in this review. The problem is, no one can tell you what is missing, what will make you care, what will allow you to adopt the character for 115 minutes and follow him/her to hell and back.

    When I came to China to teach, Chinese students complained that they loved Mark Twain and Huck-Finn but did not “feel” the story. I suggested they connect through Chinese writers with similar experiences on one of the major rivers here. That neurophysiological relationship may be the key component to character development and the “manipulation” of the audience to feel.

    But, I too have sat through movies and never felt the character or plot line. If some one can comment on the specific issue of a film allowing you to “care” about it, I would love to hear other thoughtful opinions.

  7. Karen says:

    Thanks for mentioning one of Hitchcock’s lesser-known works. I love that film, especially the oddball circus train segments. Robert Cummings is perfect as the what’s-happening-here hero, added by perky Priscilla Lane. I think I’ll watch it again tonight! Thanks, Leonard!

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