I barely remembered to breathe the first time I watched Caroline Bartleet’s Operator. The sign of a particularly gripping short film is that you still remember it months later, and I just keep coming back to her directorial debut. It is an electrifying, barefaced short that is nerve-rackingly tense, simultaneously heart-stirring and hair-raising, and yet manages never to cheaply sensationalise. Forget edge-of-seat, this BAFTA-winner makes you forget you even have one and with every rewatch, I get lost in the alarm and agitation all over again.
Its premise is simple: a 999 operator helps a mother as her son lies in the bedroom of their burning home. This is not a typical indie darling short or a navel-gazing galore fest desperately trying to say something new; instead, the focus is on telling this hard-hitting story honestly and well. This film is much more about what it doesn’t show than what it does: you never see the mother (Vicky McClure) which makes her raw and frantic panic via phone call all the more heart-breaking. It leaves us, just like the mother, clinging onto absolutely every word of the cool, collected operator (Katie Dickie), who gives guidance which is always assured, but whose eyes sometimes tell a different story. Whilst the mother’s fear is unrestrained, Dickie beautifully captures both the infallible, unflappable front of an emergency helper and those brief moments when her front slips.
Operator is an electrifying, barefaced short that is nerve-rackingly tense, simultaneously heart-stirring and hair-raising
The often unnoticed and overlooked art of audio stars in this short, and extensive credit goes to sound designer Lisa-Marie McStay and sound recordist Jake Whitelee. You never doubt the reality of the phone call, each deathly crackle and stomach-dropping thud. There is no score underneath Operator until the credits roll, and you are never subliminally told what to feel by an aptly placed strategic music cue. In a world where audio is grossly unappreciated in the arts, and the Tony award for sound design was entirely eliminated just a few years ago, it seems criminal that there aren’t more categories within the BAFTA Short Film Award to give credit to often overlooked fields.
Nevertheless, the more acknowledged departments don’t let the outstanding audio down. Directors really shine in the ‘small’: those scenes without cinematic flourish, which don’t hinge on flashy gimmicks or show-stopping one-shots. The real talent of big name directors, from David Fincher to Alfred Hitchcock, doesn’t just lie in their cinematographic signatures, but in the cleverly subtle direction that, with a magician’s deft hand, focuses you without your realisation, and Caroline Bartleet shines at invisibly pulling strings. The honesty of Operator is welcome in the sea of all too common clickbait (‘Sausage Party’, anyone?), but its true brilliance lies in the finesse of its execution. Everything that goes right in a film is fought for, but Bartleet doesn’t make it seem like there’s any fight at all. Her direction paired with Vanessa Whyte’s cinematography is perfectly subtle, and offers no distraction from the unfolding drama. This apparent effortlessness doesn’t come easily, and the constant smooth, circling gravitation of the camera towards the emergency service operator is a clever choice to (quite literally) draw the audience in. Performance is always and very rightly the focus, which comes as much from Bartleet’s experience as an actor as it must do from faith in her own writing and characters. Everything rests on the acting alone, because it undoubtedly can, and technicality and pizzazz constantly support rather than distract. This is a clear example of a director who should adapt what they write, as she feeds her directorial vision with authorial insight. It is great testament to both cinematographer and director that nothing distracts from the staggering power of its script.
When a film is this well made, it is a struggle even to identify its inner workings, let alone unpick them. For the most part, this film shuts down the nit-picker in me, but l still sometimes come back to it with new ideas: should it be longer? Shorter? Why don’t we hear more from the child? And what about that ending? But the pacing is too tight to meddle with, the ending is an interesting choice, and no single change is worth compromising the film as it stands.
Operator is a cinematic tour de force which doesn’t let up until the last possible moment. It is seven seamless minutes of gut-wrenching tension, riveting drama and stellar performances which you just can’t take your eyes and ears off. It just doesn’t scream to be heard: it has something to say. Watch it, survive it, and if like me you come back to it, know your ride won’t be any easier, because mine never is.
Operator is available to watch on Vimeo.