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Andrea Riseborough has done outstanding work in films of all shapes and sizes for more than a decade. She’s been an IRA sympathiser in Shadow Dancer, a striking machinist in Made in Dagenham, and Billie Jean King’s girlfriend in Battle Of The Sexes. She’s starred opposite Alexander Skarsgård in Hidden, Nicholas Cage in Mandy, and Tom Cruise in Oblivion.

Her latest role, in Nancy, is perhaps her most low-key to date. She plays the titular Nancy, a temp who lives at home with her mom (Ann Dowd). After her mother dies, Nancy happens to see a news report about Leo (Steve Buscemi) and Ellen (J. Smith-Cameron), a couple in their fifties whose daughter Brooke was kidnapped three decades earlier. Seeing that she bears an uncanny resemblance to the age-progressed picture of what Brooke would look like now, she decides to make contact with the pair.

This movie thrives in its ambiguity. You never really know why Nancy does what she does. There doesn’t seem to be delusion at play here – her cornered animal expression as soon as a DNA test is mentioned implies she knows that she is not the kidnapped Brooke. What she does is cruel, but she doesn’t appear to mean it cruelly. Her act doesn’t spring from malice, she doesn’t derive pleasure from the suffering of these grieving people. It’s as if there’s an unspoken transaction occurring; she needs parents, they need a daughter, can’t they all be happy, even without a biological link? And things look to be heading in that direction, until an enigmatic finale sends us home with even more questions.The reason Nancy works is that, despite her performing what on the surface is a callous act, we’re on her side. Although every single thing we’ve seen tells us that she is not the long lost daughter of Leo and Ellen, we still kind of hope that she is. Since we aren’t explicitly told her motivations, we have to work harder to decipher them for ourselves. All films deal in empathy to some degree; this film more than most.

A large part of its success in this regard is down to Riseborough, who gives a performance of great subtlety and alertness. She very rarely says what she’s actually thinking, but it’s all there in those big, tired eyes. She gets top-notch support from Steve Buscemi and J Smith-Cameron. They play their roles with such vulnerability, sometimes you find yourself holding your breath just watching them.

Nancy is the first feature from writer-director Christina Choe, and it’s one heck of a debut. Set in the depths of winter, largely within one house, she maintains a quiet, liminal mood throughout; these three people are on the cusp of something, and none of them quite know what. Whilst this is generally an unshowy movie, there’s a real tour de force change in aspect ratio when Nancy leaves her own house to meet Leo and Ellen for the first time. It’s one of many signs here that a bright future lies ahead for Choe.

Small but perfectly formed, Nancy is a compellingly enigmatic poem of loss and loneliness; love and our need to be loved.

★★★★

Nancy is out on DVD and Digital Download from 5 November 2018

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