The British film Cordelia gives off serious Roman Polanski vibes, namely Repulsion. Its star, Cordelia (Antonia Campbell-Hughes), is afraid to leave her apartment, much like Carol (Catherine Deneuve), the lead in Repulsion. However, Cordelia has very different reasons for her fears. It turns out that her anxiety about facing the larger world is justified.
Cordelia is a slow burn that raises a lot of questions, like whether some of the narrative’s events are all in the lead’s head, due to her PTSD. It’s the type of film that has clues sprinkled throughout before it reaches its conclusion. It will also leave the viewer with two main questions: what’s the source of Cordelia’s trauma, and can her love interest, Frank (Johnny Flynn) be trusted?
What unfolds within the 90 minutes is a profound exploration of one woman’s fragile emotional state, guilt, and trauma.
Cordelia’s PTSD and Trauma Explained
The film opens with a nightmare. Cordelia is on the Tube, as lights flicker. She gives her seat up to a man, who reoccurs in her other nightmares. Immediately, director Adrian Shergold establishes a sense of dread. Just as something is about to happen, however, Cordelia wakes up. The viewer is left in the dark about what happened on the Tube throughout most of the film.
Whatever happened that day, years ago, Cordelia is still so shellshocked and rattled by it that her twin sister, Caroline, also played by Campbell-Hughes, takes care of her. Cordelia can’t function in the real world. Early on, Caroline tells her sis that she must stop shutting people out, and it’s no secret what happened to her. However, whatever happened to Cordelia is kept from the viewer, at least for about an hour into the film.
The source of Cordelia’s trauma doesn’t matter so much at first. Instead, the film is more interested in exploring its effects on her. At one point, Caroline tells her that she’s only “half existing.” Cordelia responds that maybe she was meant to die, not exist. This back and forth becomes important later.
By the last act, Cordelia finally confesses to Frank that she was on the Tube during a terrorist attack. She survived the bomb attack. However, the man she gave her seat up for, the one she sees in her nightmares, died. This explains why Cordelia feels like she’s not meant to be alive. She also mentions to Frank that at one point, she was a successful actress, but the trauma she endured changed that. She stopped living because she feels like she was fated to die, not the other passenger. Cordelia feels like she cheated death.
Who Is Frank and Can He Be Trusted?
The film’s other mystery surrounds Frank, Caroline and Cordelia’s upstairs neighbor. He spends most of his day sawing away on his cello. Eventually, he meets Cordelia at a café. There’s something between them. Prior to Frank, Cordelia refused to talk to many people and acted annoyed that her twin found a new boyfriend, Matt (Joel Fry).
Yet, something seems off about Frank almost immediately. For instance, he invites Cordelia to a bar, where it’s just the two of them. Then, he leaves suddenly, escaping through the fire exit without a clear explanation. In the meantime, Cordelia finds pictures of her and her sister on his phone. Talk about creepy!
Cordelia also learns that Frank doesn’t perform with an orchestra or solo. He has performance anxiety. So, he also lied to her about that. Worse yet, he has pictures of the twins hanging up in his apartment, including one of them naked in the bathtub. He’s been peeping at them through the floorboards.
Is Frank the Creepy Caller?
There’s a bit of a Black Christmas vibe happening in Cordelia, too. Frequently, the protagonist receives disturbing calls. However, the voice is unidentifiable, but he knows exactly what Cordelia’s doing when she’s in the apartment. At one point, the caller asks her if Frank is her new boyfriend and if he’s playing the cello for her. He also asks why she closed the curtains.
Later, Cordelia traces the call to Frank’s phone. Based on his other hair-raising habits, there’s a good cause that he is the caller and Cordelia’s talker. However, during the final scene, the phone rings again, leaving a little bit of ambiguity. However, based on Frank’s other awful habits, it’s likely that he is indeed the caller.
Why Does Cordelia Stab Frank?
Despite all his really awful flaws, Cordelia and Frank do have something in common. They’re both afraid of the world. Frank’s anxiety is never explained. At one point, he drones on about how his mom didn’t love him properly, but he didn’t face a terrorist attack like Cordelia.
Both characters are bonded by their loneliness. They rarely leave the apartment complex. Cordelia even tells him, “I see you. I know you hide alone in the flat,” adding, “You’re just the same as me, half living.” So, if she does feel some connection to him, despite all his creepiness, why does she stab him? Why try to murder him if she feels like they have a connection as two lonely souls?
Well, the fateful moment happens when Frank says, “You’re tormented by guilt.” He strikes at her deepest fear, that it’s her fault a man died on the Tube because she gave her seat to him. It’s the ghost that plagues her in her nightmares and throughout the film. Frank indeed sees Cordelia, at least for a moment, and she can’t handle it. She responds, “It’s not my fault I’m here.”
Yet, there’s also an argument to be made that Frank had it coming. He spied on her, snapped lewd photos, and was quite possibly the caller. At first, Frank denies it all, but eventually admits to her, “I preferred watching you anyways.” So, it wasn’t all in her head. The photos, the calls, and the sense someone was always watching her were all justified fears.
The Ending Explained- Is Frank Still Alive?
Cordelia ends on a rather grim note. After the lead stabs Frank, he gets away. She sees bloody handprints on the apartment complex walls. She tries to find him but fails. The phone rings and before we hear a voice, the credits roll.
This ending hints at a few possibilities. Frank isn’t dead. He’s going to continue to torment Cordelia. Further, the guilt she feels isn’t resolved. She’s never going to be able to shake her trauma, even if it was cathartic, for a moment, to stab Frank. Briefly, she releases the anger and guilt she harbors. However, because he’s still alive by the end, it’s symbolic of the fact she can’t escape the past. She’ll continue to be haunted by both Frank and the terrorist attack.
The clues regarding Frank and the source of Cordelia’s trauma are spread throughout the film as fine little breadcrumbs. Cordelia’s anxiety is justified because she survived a terrorist attack but feels like she should have died that day. Meanwhile, Frank flashes stalker signs from the outset. More importantly, though, the film is a decent exploration of a woman’s PTSD and trauma. Campbell-Hughes does an excellent job playing an emotionally shattered woman who can’t flee her past.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.