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Antonia Campbell-Hughes: "People like a female who's very fey, sweet, and softly broken"

Actor and director Antonia Campbell-Hughes discusses psychological thriller Cordelia, the reaction to the film's poster, and filming during the pandemic

Antonia Campbell-Hughes and Johnny Flynn in Cordelia

When the psychological thriller Cordelia was filmed in 2018 the audience would have been expected to place themselves in Cordelia’s unfamiliar frame of mind, as she spends prolonged amounts of time at home alone. Wind on two years and that experience is much less unfamiliar.

This doesn’t mean Cordelia loses its sense of displacement. There’s an air of unease drifting through Adrian Shergold’s film, the sort which the hairs on your arms understand long before you do. Antonia Campbell-Hughes plays Cordelia, an actress carrying an unspecified trauma, who shares a London flat with her outgoing twin sister Caroline (also played by Campbell-Hughes) and her boyfriend Matt (Joel Fry). The sound of their carefree lives competes for her attention against the strains of a cello from the flat above, inhabited by musician Frank (Johnny Flynn). Rather than meet during a clap for carers, as many might have struck up a friendship with neighbours this year, Cordelia and Frank’s relationship develops in a darker and more ominous way.

While Cordelia deals with the potential remoteness of city life, Campbell-Hughes has recently spent eight weeks filming in a remote corner in Ireland’s northerly tip, the location for her directorial debut. Due to strict Covid protocols, the production required the cast and crew to spend eight weeks on location, as well as observe the necessary safety regulations. All the limitations imposed on the production, if anything, inspired Campbell-Hughes. “I did come out of filming feeling like we’d shot like The Revenant. Hit me, I can do anything, I’m ready,” she laughs. “I thrive on limitations. I like having a box of tools and knowing those tools are the best equipment to make your film. When resources are infinite, the lack of boundaries can be daunting.”

That isolated location is a contrast to the buzz of the old normal in Cordelia, where strangers rub shoulders on London’s streets, pubs, and tubes. It’s odd to see, almost akin to archive footage, but Campbell-Hughes was gripped by what happens away from those crowded streets. “When Adrian brought the script to me I was very intrigued by the isolation that occurs when people live in a hugely populated city. That happens in New York, Tokyo, or London, where people are literally on top of each other. The isolation that can happen in close proximity, almost more so than if you're in a village. People have to be so resilient and extreme survivors to function day-to-day in a very fast paced environment.”

Antonia Campbell-Hughes - by Chris Barr

Since the pandemic, our awareness of those who lived in isolation before lockdowns has hopefully increased, and it was these lives Cordelia addresses. “The pace of how we live has changed quite dramatically. We were extreme consumers, high input, high output. I was always very interested in people who are low input, low output, which would be the elderly or those who are compromised,” says Campbell-Hughes. “They're sort of second class citizens in London. When people can't function as excellent, surviving city dwellers, they can very easily self-isolate and hermit, which is what Cordelia does. That's why when she manages to return to the outside world, it’s a bombardment of activity.”

At first, you almost flinch on behalf of Cordelia as she moves through the city, like a butterfly caught in a wind tunnel. However, even though she does carry invisible wounds, there’s more at play underneath her exterior; the nature of duality, Cordelia also an identical twin, is explored as a defensive mechanism. “I had her choose to externalize being a victim. She knows she's chosen to be this sort of vapid, characterized cliché of femininity, to externalize the fragility,” explains Campbell-Hughes. “At the midway point, when she goes to her mother's house, that's when we see a change in her gait. I worked very specifically on that - you should see the change and how she carries herself in that midsection.”

Cordelia’s presentation of herself speaks to a wider issue of how society responds to women. “Cordelia is naturally quite cunning. She's been self-isolating and has only gradually been able to return to her job as an actress. She's asked herself, ‘What will be received well? Unfortunately people like a female who's very fey, sweet, and softly broken. It's still easily engaged with.”

This identity, even camouflage, presented Campbell-Hughes with a challenge. “I'm quite the hardened feminist - her process is what I built over a long period of time to get my head around her decision of self-presentation. The later shift is why she's able to meet Frank head on and she very much calls him out on what he's doing. He presents a social presentation of himself as a charming and charismatic individual, when he’s actually frightened and flawed.”

All the points Campbell-Hughes - and the film - make about how society is more comfortable with an assertive male hierarchy were borne out by the reaction to Cordelia’s poster. A still from the film, it shows Cordelia behind Frank as he’s pressed against a wall. The internet was agog. Campbell-Hughes remains mystified by the response to that single image. “That scene is very specific; it’s about two people who are equal. It’s a tug of war. It’s not even about gender, it's about human beings who are meeting eye-to-eye. It’s funny people thought it was like this dominatrix pegging a man. It’s odd. I guess that's where my head is versus our quite patriarchal world.”

Cordelia is available to stream now on platforms, including Prime Video

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