M Night Shyamalan is back to his best in a film featuring spectacularly wide-ranging work from James McAvoy
An M Night Shyamalan thriller is not the sort of film you expect to rock up in awards season, but the star of Split, James McAvoy, should have been a frontrunner for every acting gong going. Quite literally – he merits Best Actor, Best Actress, and could even have contested the supporting categories for his truly multifaceted performance, playing Kevin, a sufferer of dissociative identity disorder. With 23 male and female characters residing inside him, while we don't meet them all, you can bet McAvoy gave thought to each and every one.
Pitched somewhere between a psychological drama and kidnap B-movie, Split begins when 'Dennis', one of Kevin's more troubled personalities, abducts three teenage girls. They are pals Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), along with Casey (The Witch's Anya Taylor-Joy), an introverted loner who, as is gradually revealed, has her own demons to contend with. Taken to a below-ground facility, a maze of corridors, small rooms and exposed pipe work, Shyamalan sets you up for thinking this is just another girls-in-peril tale.
Yet, as the story unfolds, Split emerges as something quite different, flitting between the trio's ordeal and scenes in the company of a kindly shrink (Betty Buckley) who is visited by 'Barry', a moderate persona fighting for airtime in Kevin's fractured mind. While the causes of the film's traumas – mothers, uncles – are nothing new, the renderings of these damaged souls by McAvoy and Taylor-Joy is so vivid, it all feels box-fresh.
Factor in a really strange X-Men-inspired final act and this is easily Shyamalan's most compelling and intelligent movie in years. True, that's not saying much compared to, say, The Happening or The Last Airbender – but Split sees the director back to his best. Perhaps this is why, in the very final moments, he nods to one of his earlier, better regarded works, with more possibly to come. The fanboys will freak.
General release from Fri 20 Jan.