On the Line | SLIFF 2023

Film festivals, of course, are a great place to find films that may be small in scope or budget but big on ambition. Writer/director Oliver Pearn’s debut feature On the Line certainly fits that bill: a thriller that wrings palpable tension out of a kidnapping mystery without ever leaving a single room.

Agnes (Victoria Lucie) is a switchboard operator on Alderney, a tiny island (just 3 square miles!) in the English Channel. As you can imagine, there aren’t a lot of calls on an island that size, and Agnes spends her downtime between calls (always answered primly, properly, and professionally, with an accent that’s a dead ringer for Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins) calling friends or her fiancé, making arrangements for their upcoming nuptials. Then, suddenly, she is rattled out of her routine when she gets a call from an elderly woman named Martha (voice of Joanne Rogers) with dementia—she doesn’t know where she is, but it’s clear she’s in trouble. Agnes alerts the police, but they’re no help. But then the old woman calls back, and it appears she’s been abducted and is now on the move. Agnes becomes invested—if the police don’t care enough to find Martha, she’ll make them care, and she’ll track Martha down herself if she has to.

The challenge—for both Agnes and the filmmakers—is that Agnes’ entire story takes place in her small switchboard office. As she clicks switches and moves wires about, we hear the disembodied voices of the kidnapper, the kidnappee, witnesses, family members, and other associated townsfolk, but all we ever see is Agnes and her tiny, cramped work environment. It’s a lot to ask a single actor to carry an entire movie, but Lucie, fortunately, is more than up for the challenge: her Agnes code switches as she switches calls, from professionally cheery with most callers to nervous with her fiancé to blunt with her friend on the police force. The word for her attitude as the Martha calls come in is “frazzled,” and Lucie does a fantastic job of ratcheting up Agnes’ anxiety a little more with each new phone call without ever going over the top into melodrama or histrionics. The role of Agnes is a pure actor’s showcase, and Lucie works wonders with it. Pearn, meanwhile, keeps things visually engaging even within the confines of the single, vaguely claustrophobic set, mixing up lingering distance shots with tight closeups of Lucie’s face to accentuate the tension. That tension is driven home even more by Matthew Collings’ synth-heavy score, which sometimes hits a little too hard but generally succeeds at its job of imbuing sufficient drama onto what’s basically just a woman talking into a headset.

There were a couple twists that I didn’t quite follow and a few times the plot strained credulity, but on balance, On the Line is a tight and very watchable thriller with a powerhouse of a central performance courtesy of Victoria Lucie, and at only 74 minutes, it doesn’t sag or overstay its welcome, either. | Jason Green

On the Line will screen at the Hi-Pointe Theatre Backlot (1002 Hi-Pointe Place) on Saturday, November 11 at 6:15 pm as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival 2023. Single film tickets are $15 for general admission, $12 for Cinema St. Louis members and students with valid current photo IDs. Further information is available here.

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