How engaging can a film be when you are not supposed to sympathise with the protagonists? The Incident, the first feature-length film from director Jane Linfoot, is a modern morality tale that takes on this question. It tells the story of an affluent young couple from the London art and architecture worlds, Annabelle and Joe, who are taking a break from the city at their second home, an attractive glass house designed by Joe in the northern English countryside. While in the local town, where Annabelle and Joe stick out among the largely working-class residents, Joe is approached by a teenage girl, Lily, whom he pays for sex. The couple cross paths with Lily again when Annabelle overhears her about to engage in a sex act in a public toilet and, later, when she is picked up in a car by another man while both are stopped at a red light. Lily recognises Annabelle’s car as Joe’s, and later follows her home. The titular incident sees Lily breaking into the house and drunkenly confronting Annabelle with a pair of tights pulled ghoulishly over her face. In the weeks after, Annabelle —who, it transpires, is pregnant—examines her feelings of guilt over the fate of this vulnerable girl and her eventual decision to meet Lily via a youth support worker, after the police have picked her up. All the while, her husband tries to prevent Annabelle discovering his connection to Lily.
It all moves at a deliberately slow pace, reminiscent of Joanna Hogg’s film Exhibition, which also follows two architects and their relationship to the sterile environment they’ve created for their home, and which is characterised by the same paucity of dialogue used to to draw us into the psychology of the characters. But unlike Hogg’s film, The Incident’s attempt to focus on unlikeable characters in a way that does not alienate viewers is not entirely successful.
From the outline of the plot, The Incident’s depiction of gender relations seems disappointingly uncritical. A man pays a financially and socially vulnerable young woman for sex behind his wife’s back; men are powerful, women powerless. But the joy is in the detail. Joe is eventually forced to think about the consequences of his actions more than most men like him ever have to. And the film’s depiction of the young Lily performing her idea of femininity is bracing, yet sensitive. It develops a narrative path present in Linfoot’s earlier work, which often focuses on the painful experience of teenage girlhood. The BAFTA-nominated short Sea View, for example, follows a teenager’s ill-fated weekend at the seaside with an older man. There are long sequences in which she prepares herself for their night out: doing her make-up, wriggling into a party dress. The Incident’s Lily is another of Linfoot’s young women who learn that society seems to value them mostly for their bodies. In the film’s opening scene we see her slide up to Joe’s car, letting down her hair and pushing her chest out, playing the role with a touching naivety strongly reminiscent of the protagonist in Sea View. Among the film’s most memorable scenes are those in which Lily washes herself in various public toilets. Lingering shots show her carefully scrubbing her neck, mouth, and hands in preparation for the next encounter. We are struck by the youthful artlessness of her movements.
The Incident draws some of its characters more engagingly than others. The frosty atmosphere of Joe and Annabelle’s household means we are barely invested in the fate of their relationship, which seems dead in the water regardless of the appearance of Lily. It is very difficult to commiserate with them, drifting around their ultra-designed home waiting for champagne deliveries by the crate and kitted out like models for a Scandinavian fashion brand. Our sympathy is directed toward Lily, literally peering through the glass at Joe and Annabelle’s consumerist idyll, and the first half of the film follows her closely. It’s a strange structural imbalance that after Lily’s intrusion into the house we see much less of her; instead, we’re offered the unappealing prospect of emotionally investing in Annabelle and Joe. Lily’s masked intrusion is unsettling, but not enough that we feel Annabelle’s reaction to the event is justified, and her self-pity becomes enervating. There are only so many times a film should include the sound of a wine glass being set down gently on a hardwood table, followed by a wistful sigh. Yet it is Joe who is the film’s weak link; we never quite get a sense of how he feels about anything. The Incident doesn’t go much beyond a surface examination of the emotional process that leads a man to, seemingly out of character, solicit a cut-rate blowjob from a teenager. Tom Hughes’s performance could have done much more to bring out nuance. Joe could have been a complex and engaging character but Hughes’s lack of subtlety meant that it read more as if Joe had no actual motivations for doing anything, than that he felt guilty or internally conflicted by his actions.
The couple and Lily occupy vastly different social worlds, despite being thrown into geographical proximity. The film exposes middle-class guilt and lack of social responsibility without offering solutions; discussing her failure to stop Lily from getting into the strange man’s car, Annabelle asks herself and her husband: “Why didn’t I do anything?” The question is left hanging. And what she does eventually decide to do – meet Lily and try to get to the bottom of why she trespassed in her home – doesn’t end up doing much either to assuage her guilt or to help Lily. Instead, when they meet, neither woman gets a real shot at redemption. Annabelle’s encounter with Lily misses the mark pitiably (“I’d just like to see you take more care”), and contributes to the impression that this is a film about a middle-class that is fundamentally unable to grasp what circumstances might be like for a teenage sex worker. It’s like those furtive glances through windows: The Incident is a film in which people obsess over, but never in fact influence, how other people live.