A man enters a cavernous, bright building to apply for a passport to visit his son. He begins his conversation as Mr. Phillips, but soon is revealed to be Mr. Taubman instead, with Judaism as his “religion of origin.”
Denied a passport as a result, the man must engage in a game of wits and mental chess with the bureaucrat making the final decision, though the system that’s been put in place since the “exclusion” proves itself more labyrinthine and complex than it seems.
Writer-director Ben Price’s incisive, powerful drama examines the convergence of ancient bigotry with modern-day systems, exposing the insidious ways that systems and the functionaries that serve them deeply affect those that they seek to control and curtail.
Visually, the film is strikingly clean and minimalistic, thanks to the vast inner vistas of the setting and the gleaming, almost antiseptic lighting. The visual language toggles between artfully composed wide shots and close-ups, creating a slight sense of disorientation that mirrors the hidden political dynamics that Taubman navigates in his conversation with his adversary.
The film’s intelligence and power rest on a solid script, which possesses a canny sense of storytelling and timing. It sets up a world and a political reality with a few well-placed actions and references, but more importantly, it uses its world’s norms and assumptions to create obstacles and drive drama in an organic way. There is a confident and sure sense of rhythm in both the writing and editing, and the narrative knows just when to reveal, shift gears and create surprise to escalate tension.
The excellent cast — featuring actors Ian Puleston-Davies and Jack P. Shepherd — offer performances that are both as stylized as the world around them, and they play off well against one another as they engage in their game of mental chess. But they’re also grounded in genuine human need and emotion, especially when cracks in the calcified facade reveal themselves — and reveals the moral bankruptcy of the prejudice that the entire system rests upon.
“Taubman” was released in 2016, but its themes of anti-Semitism — and the mutable and insidious ways that it is encoded into our systems of control and power — still unfortunately resonate in today’s world, especially considering recent events.
Structurally, the story is a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse, and it’s effective on this dramatic level, drawing viewers in with the agility of its character-based storytelling. But the real power of “Taubman” lies in how it evokes a future that’s sanitized and efficient on the surface — and how these clean, cool surfaces and systems try to legitimize and normalize the ugly ideas and bigotries they’re masking. But the totalitarian power of these systems come at considerable human cost — for the oppressed and even the oppressors.