Grand Central is a curiously divisive movie, in more ways than one. This is a concept represented perhaps most obviously on its Rotten Tomatoes page, where the critics love it (a 95% approval rating is certainly nothing to balk at) but the audiences aren’t quite so impressed (44% is a figure perhaps a little more warranting of concern). Think what you will about what this says of the moviegoing sensibilities of professional writers vs vox populi, but that’s not what’s up for discussion today. I myself lie somewhere in the middle of these two somewhat polarised viewpoints, for reasons that I will attempt to coherently espouse here.
Let’s get the brief synopsis out of the way first. Gary Manda (Tahar Rahim) is an unemployed-yet-hardworking young man who, at the film’s outset, departs a train in the hope of finding a new job. Upon arrival at his destination, he is given work at a nuclear power station, the pressures of which are exacerbated further when he enters into an illicit affair with his boss’ wife-to-be Karole (Léa Seydoux). It’s an interesting premise that, in theory, possesses the potential to express itself as a compelling exploration of one man’s battle with the pressures of a situation of entirely his own making. Unfortunately for director Rebecca Zlotowski, the reality of Grand Central’s execution is one of considerable and impressive peaks paired with disappointing troughs.
There is a lot that Grand Central does well, and just as much that lets it down, and perhaps the broadest way to think about this split is to divide its storytelling into two parts: the power station part, and the romance part. In all of the scenes concerning Gary and co.’s work at the plant, it is obvious that those who worked on this movie know how to build an atmosphere. As the new recruits take the elevator down into the plant on their first day, the tension is palpable. You feel their apprehension inside yourself for every agonising second of their descent. Each and every scene that takes place in the nuclear environment is shot, soundtracked, and acted so perfectly that you really do feel as if you’re right in there with them, knowing full well that even the most minute error could have deadly and far-reaching consequences.
It is a shame, then, that all of this hard work is undone by a romantic plotline that, despite being grounded in a legitimate desire to add an extra layer of danger to Gary’s life, comes off unfortunately as more of an afterthought in its execution, and this is largely because the underlying motivation between the forbidden love is never made explicitly apparent. A lack of exposition isn’t necessarily a bad thing (as so many terrible films that offer their explanations through glaringly obvious dialogue can testify), but in this case I can’t help but feel that Gary and Karole would have benefited a little from talking to each other a little bit in between all of the sex. It certainly would have eased the understanding a little.
To briefly surmise Grand Central is to speak of a movie that is at times blisteringly engaging and atmospheric, but that at the same time is all too often fond of breaking the immersion with a side plot that is not only poorly-executed but also wholly unsatisfying in its realisation. I’d probably recommend it based on the truly beguiling nature of the power plant scenes, but with the fair warning that you’ll have to be prepared to wade through the romantic bits in order to enjoy the good bits.