Film-makers always take a risk when they construct a story around a spiky protagonist. But Glasgow-based debutant Peter Mackie Burns's gamble pays off handsomely in Daphne, a feature version of his acclaimed short, Happy Birthday to Me (2013), which reunites him with screenwriter Nico Mensinga and star Emily Beecham, whose fearless performance is one of the highlights of a picture that views such classic studies of single girls in London as John Schlesinger's Darling (1965) and Silvio Narizzano's Georgy Girl (1966) through the prism of Mike Leigh's Naked (1993).

Thirty-one year-old half-Sicilian redhead Emily Beecham lives life on her own terms. She doesn't share Ritu Arya's enthusiasm for keeping in touch with old friends and walks away from pub pick-up Tim Innes when he breaks off from a street snog to take a selfie for his mates. Boss Tom Vaughan-Lawlor tolerates her tetchy attitude at the restaurant where she works as a chef, while pizza delivery boy Ragevan Vasan overlooks the fact she gives him an inappropriate Muslim greeting and is two pounds short. But mother Geraldine James is tired of Beecham sneering at everything, especially as she has begun experimenting with alternative philosophies since being diagnosed with cancer.

Vaughan-Lawlor also expects a good deal from Beecham, as he recognises her talent and shares expensive cheese samples with her on the fire escape outside the restaurant. But Beecham goes her own way, whether she is calling Slavoj Žižek a `doughnut' while reading one of his books or discussing Freud's theories of love over a line of cocaine with Osy Ikhile before sleeping with him and shoving her bare foot into his sleeping face after raiding his fridge.

However, she receives a jolt on her way home to Elephant and Castle when she pops into Amra Mallassi's convenience store and witnesses him being stabbed by a drug-fuelled thief. She kneels beside Mallassi and hands him a photograph of his family while waiting for the ambulance to arrive and gives a statement to the police. But she ignores calls offering her counselling and teases Vaughan-Lawlor when he tries to show off his knowledge of Žižek during a discussion on Internet dating and the difference between love and sex.

Having sent him home to his wife, Beecham keeps drinking and has an argument with bouncer Nathaniel Martello-White, who finds her foul-mouthed spirit amusing. She staggers home to force feed takeaway chicken to a picture of Ryan Gosling on her laptop and talks to herself in bed before waking with a hangover. Ignoring calls from James, she snipes at kitchen manager Karina Fernandez for always whining about minor hassles and drops into Vaughan-Lawlor's office to suggests they sleep together. But she loses her nerve and they barely mention the incident during a rooftop fag break. She asks if he ever fantasised as a kid about becoming the centre of attention after losing both parents and he laughs that she is a weird one. He admits that he didn't intend having kids, but he has learnt that life is about getting on with the unexpected and they shrug at each other. After work, Beecham bumps into Martello-White in a deli and they make awkward small talk before he offers his phone number.

Bunking off work, Beecham goes to see psychiatrist Stuart McQuarrie to discuss her reaction to Mallassi's stabbing. However, she is aggressively defensive and questions his ability to assess her when he knows nothing about her and has a complete set of Harry Potter books on his shelf. On the bus home, she gets chatting to young mum Ruth Bradley and they jovially complain about how rundown they feel. But they fall silent when Bradley thinks Beecham is joking about her mother having cancer and they mumble their goodbyes when Beecham reaches her stop.

She calls Martello-White and they meet for a drink. However, Beecham launches into a diatribe about the impossibility of love and storms out when he reminds her they are only on a first date. He runs after her and asks what her problem is. But she follows when he goes back to finish his drink and have an enjoyable evening until Beecham puts on her indifferent act again when they part at the Underground station. She gets home to find James waiting for her and they argue about her need to keep having chemotherapy, even though James has lost faith in traditional medicine.

Having cooked a meal she promptly throws away, Beecham has another altercation when she meets up with Arya, who wishes she would stop being so cynical all the time. Returning home, Beecham crashes on the sofa and is surprised when Vasan delivers a takeaway she has no recollection of ordering. He asks if she is okay and suggests that she gets some fresh air, but she is in no mood to take health advice from a stranger. Nevertheless, she picks up college lecturer Matthew Pidgeon in a bar the following day and gets so wasted after meaningless sex at his flat that a top shot shows her meandering along the pavement, as though she has no idea who she is, let alone where she is.

Still drunk, she goes to work and insults Fernandez and orders Vaughan-Lawlor to stop handling the merchandise when he tries to calm her down. He takes her home and cooks breakfast after sleeping on the couch. She stops short of apologising, but sticks with her drunken decision to quit when he admits that he is in love with her and hopes that they can still see each other in the future. Struggling to get her head together, Beecham pays McQuarrie another visit and reveals that she feels the need to see Mallassi, even though she isn't particularly concerned how he is. McQuarrie reassures her that it's impossible to have the correct response to every situation and she ponders his advice on a train across London to tell Martello-White that she's not in the right place for a relationship.

Against her better judgement, Beecham attends a Buddhist healing ceremony with James and they hug in the park after James says she isn't ready to give up on life just yet. She follows this up by calling on Mallassi, who is delighted to see her and invites her to eat with his wife and two small children. They re-enact the robbery to show his family what happened and reassures Beecham that she saved him by calling the ambulance and holding his hand. As at the prayer meeting, she feels both amused and touched and recognises that her petty problems don't really amount to much in the grander scheme.

Closing somewhat cornily on a shot of Beecham as a face in the nocturnal crowd while The Velvet Underground's `I Found a Reason' plays on the soundtrack, this is a compelling portrait of a millennial singleton coping with the kind of urban alienation to which Michelangelo Antonioni used to subject his carefree female characters in the 1950s. But Burns and Mensinga merely skirt the more political aspects of the scenario, as they examine the impact of isolation in a claustrophobic metropolis. They are far from the first to focus on such feistily independent women, however, as Theda Bara, Mae Murray, Clara Bow and Louise Brooks all played similar types in the silent era. Indeed, echoes abound of features like Richard Brooks's Looking for Mr Goodbar (1977) and Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret (2011), as well as such TV series as Girls, Love and Fleabag (which was created by Beecham's friend, Phoebe Waller-Bridge).

But, while the approach may not be entirely novel and details like Beecham keeping a pet snake and drunkenly peddling a ghost bike in the park feel a little contrived, this is full of zinging one-liners. Moreover, thanks to the creative realism of Adam Scarth's visuals, Nick Emerson's nimble editing, Joakim Sundström's acute sound mix and Sam Beste's unpredictable piano score, Burns is able to capture the rhythms of city life while also giving Beecham plenty of scope to explore her character. His comparison to Gena Rowlands in the early films of John Cassavetes is apt, as Beecham never seems to be giving a performance, whether she's being snarky with other women or brusquely flirtatious with men. However, her brittle, almost Huppertian excellence depends much on the attuned support provided by the likes of Geraldine James, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Nathaniel Martello-White and Stuart McQuarrie.

Since winning the Golden Bear at Berlin with his first short, Milk (2005), 50 year-old Burns has produced two more shorts, Run (2005) and Stronger (2015), and the affecting experimental documentary, Come Closer (2011). But he will have his work cut out to improve upon this cannily quirky feminist parable for the gadget age.

Dashes of the nouvelle vague, Dogme95 and Mumblecore aesthetics have been liberally sprinkled throughout Mercedes Grower's first feature, Brakes. Made over four years on a meagre budget, this collection of improvised sketches appears to be heading into self-indulgence before a change of direction midway through forces the viewer to reappraise what they have been watching and give some of the more tiresome characters a second chance. But, for all its debts to Bertholt Brecht and Jean-Luc Godard, this always feels like a group of pals having a lark and hoping it all turns out right in the end.

Following a snippet from a Skype conversation between Steve Oram and Kelly Campbell and opening credits cross-cutting old movie clips with shots of the characters we are about to meet, a caption proclaims `Part Two'. A cut takes us to the stage door at the National Theatre, where Julian Barratt has brought ice-cream cones as a surprise for actor Oliver Maltman. They seemingly had a fling in Barcelona and Barratt has come to London to continue the relationship. But the married Maltman is aghast and tries to escape along the narrow strip of beach abutting the South Bank, as Barratt pursues him with his melting cornet.

As Julia Davis leaves repeated messages for fellow actor Seb Cardinal, fashionista Siobhan Hewlett pays a call on builder John Milroy to let him down gently after a brief fling. She explains that she is off to Paris Fashion Week and is still feeling frail after the breakdown of a long-term relationship. But Milroy refuses to be brushed off and, after some abrasive abuse, he reminds Hewlett that they had been good in bed together and tries to kiss her.

Despite living with older partner, Peter Wight, Davis has got the hots for Cardinal, who has come to her apartment to discuss their collaboration in a forthcoming project. Eager to impress, Davis pours some wine and plays a song she has written for the film, which Cardinal applauds with a growing sense of unease. Across the capital, Paul McGann and Kate Hardie have an intense discussion about guilt and growing up and why their relationship keeps lurching between crises. McGann pleads with Hardie not to walk away, but she feels she has a duty to her children to have a good cry and pick up the pieces. Hurt by her refusal to give things one last try, McGann turns on his heel.

Sitting in facing armchairs on a rooftop, Morgan Thomas and Juliet Cowan discuss the state of their romance. He laments that while he once considered them the coolest people, he is now bored and she is appalled that he could say such a thing minutes after sleeping with her. As he sprawls on a mattress, she pulls a chair to the edge of the roof and makes as if to jump. But Thomas grabs her and they hug before standing on the ledge together.

Davis and Cardinal start to run through a scene and he is surprised that she elects to give her character a French accent. As they run lines, Wight comes home eating a banana and sinks into the sofa with a weary sigh. He is confused why Davis is rehearsing with Cardinal when she only has a minor role in the film and he struggles to retain his composure as Davis serves up some unappetising spaghetti. Feeling uncomfortable at being in the middle of a lovers' tiff, Cardinal makes his excuses. But Davis thinks he should see the kind of man he is going to be working with and urges him to stay. Wight asks Davis to sit down and calmly informs her that their relationship is over and, while she takes this bombshell on board, Cardinal seeks reassurance he still has the part before beating a hasty retreat.

Meanwhile, on another rooftop, Salena Godden gives Daniel Roch hell for messing up again. They have been invited to a fancy dress party and, while he has transformed himself as a zombie, she is decked out as the Bride of Frankenstein. She asks if he has been drinking and if this is his way of ending their relationship. Holding a watering can in the doorway of a bijou greenhouse, he shuffles awkwardly and tells her to go and enjoy the party.

In a snowy Soho, Noel Fielding (sporting a pair of shorts) kicks a football against a wall. He is greeted by the heavily pregnant Mercedes Grower and drug dealer Martin Hancock, who is wearing a West Ham scarf. They take shelter in the video shop where Fielding works before trudging off across Soho Square to a public convenience. Still kicking the ball as Hancock hands him a small packet, Fielding asks Grower where she has been for the last three days and she explains that she is feeling fragile because he is being so weird towards her. She asks him to stop kicking the ball and talk to her, but he locks himself in a cubicle until she is capable of showing him some respect. But Grower merely feels exasperated that the father of her child keeps turning away whenever she tries to kiss him and she trudges up the steps into the snow with a heavy sigh.

As the scene shifts to a plush apartment in Marylebone, Kerry Fox complains that husband Roland Gift is spending too much time with a female colleague. He accuses her of being tipsy on martini and suggests she has too much time on her hands now that the children have gone. She asks how he would feel if he came home to find she had taken a flight back to Australia and he replies that he would barely notice, as he never comes home to a cooked supper. Fox complains that he is no longer civil, let alone attentive towards her and Gift slams his laptop shut and goes to buy beer. She opens the computer and scrolls down the screen before snapping it closed, taking a tearful sip of her drink and getting some fresh air on the balcony.

By the time Gift returns, Fox has gone. Elsewhere, Fielding can't get through to Grower on the phone, while Barratt wanders around with his ice cream and Roch sings `Dream (When You're Feeling Blue)' while watering his plants. As they all come to terms with being alone, Oram and Campbell reach their own impasse, as he accuses her of seeing someone else and she feels frustrated that he doesn't want to come and see her in person. He asks her to take her clothes off, but she refuses and he wonders why they bother.

At this juncture, the `Part One' caption appears and we begin to see scenes from the initial stages of the relationships we have just watched implode. The first shows Barratt serenading a bemused Maltman after a night of capoeira in Barceloona. He strums a guitar and calls his unsuspecting lover pet names before Maltman dashes to the bathroom to throw up. Back in Blighty, Campbell accosts Oram in the poolside shower for swimming slowly in the fast lane, only to discover that they are attending the same conference and that he is the IT support guy who helped her solve a problem the week before. They laugh, as she apologises for being so grouchy in the mornings, and Oram watches appreciatively as she walks away.

Breezing in late for an audition to play Lady Macbeth, Davis catches Wight off guard when she removes her sunglasses to reveal bruises under her eyes. She dismisses them as `a boyfriend thing' and then suggests setting the play on a council estate before delivering the `unsex me now' speech in a Scottish accent. Trying to be polite, Wight asks how much Shakespeare Davis has done and she claims to have done all but two of the 38 plays. Suddenly, she bursts into the Kate and Anna McGarrigle song, `Heart Like a Wheel', and (because it's his favourite song) he joins in with the chorus before asking one of his assistants to being some champagne and oysters.

Old acquaintances Fox and Gift bump into each other by the EuroStar terminal at St Pancras and he asks her to give him a call when she gets back from Paris. Thomas and Cowan also meet by chance, when he gets bored at an art show and takes sanctuary in the cocoon she has set up for one-to-one encounters. Rather boorishly, he suggests that her concept is bunkum and she tries to laugh off his ignorance. But they are clearly attracted to each other in this confined space and, when he suggests they leave together, she impulsively agrees.

McGann and Hardie meet at adjoining seats at the British Library. She is readying James Joyce's Ulysses and admits that this could be the latest in a string of false starts. He jokes that he read it backwards to see if he would like it and gives away the ending before asking Hardie if she would like a coffee. Godden and Roch meet more unconventionally at an open mike poetry and song session in a pub and, during a brisk exchange, they agree to meet by the statue of Oscar Wilde for a date that's not a date.

Fielding and Grower have an equally eccentric encounter at the ice rink where they work. He has been tipped off by a mate about a pretty girl handing out the skates and tells her that he used to do the same job before he started driving the icing machine. Nettled by the fact that he doesn't like her name, Grower refuses to let him come behind the counter and he sidles off as if he doesn't care. More conventionally, Milroy and Hewlett get chatting at the Southampton Arms, where she is tipsily celebrating a promotion. She stands on the banquette to sing `Molly Malone' and he follows her outside when she goes for a smoke. He reveals that he is working in the building next to hers and has often wondered what it would be like to kiss her.

As Davis suggests that she and Wight get a room, Fielding returns to offer Grower a pair of skates that used to belong to his sister and she is touched. He asks if she would like to drive the ice machine while his boss is away and she readily agrees. The camera follows their progress before cutting to the credits, which include an insert of someone (possibly Grower) writing `The End' in foam on the back windscreen of a white Mini, which drives into the suburban distance as the image irises out.

While nowhere near as determinedly or dementedly zeitgeisty as #Starvecrow, this 2016 amalgam of vignettes has acquired an accidental relevance through the similarity of the Wight-Davis storyline to the scandals currently rocking the entertainment industry. But, while Grower and her ensemble make passing reference to a range of social and emotional issues, this improv exercise could just as easily have been undertaken by the Natural Nylon gang in the late 1990s.

A number of the threads feel limp, with the weakest links being the Hewlett-Milroy, Campbell-Oram, Cowan-Thomas and Godden-Roch episodes (although the latter does boast the best make-up). The presence of such familiar faces as Noel Fielding. Julian Barratt and Julia Davis gives their segments a certain cachet, but the most intriguing items are those played by dramatic actors like Kerry Fox, Paul McGann and Kate Hardie, who are more experienced at conveying unspoken backstory in their performance.

Technically, this survives the fact is credits three cinematographers seven editors because Grower is so clearly the project's driving and guiding force. For all her perseverance and ingenuity, however, her film is more of a calling card than a definitive statement. But her subversive approach to both structure and storytelling suggests that this won't be her sole directorial outing.

It's never a reassuring sign when a book or stage work is adapted to the screen under a different name. The decision to change the title of David Harrower's acclaimed 2005 play from Blackbird to Una clearly doesn't bother the Scottish playwright, as he agreed to produce the screenplay and probably felt that the revision established a certain individuating distance between the two pieces. But, somehow, it implies a surrender of authorial ownership to Benedict Andrews, the admired Australian theatre director making his debut behind the camera, whose decision to open out a story (which he brought to the Berlin stage) that would benefit from a stifling sense of confinement suggests both an understandable desire to impose one's own artistic imprint on the material and a decided lack of cinematic guile Following a flashback to the precocious Una Spencer (Ruby Stokes) wandering past a neighbour repairing his car and appearing with her blouse open in the back garden, the action returns to the present, as Una (Rooney Mara) returns home after a joyless sexual encounter in a nightclub bathroom. She showers and ignores mother Andrea (Tara Fitzgerald) tutting about her needing a decent haircut because she has seen a press cutting that has reopened an old wound. Fibbing about a doctor's appointment, Una sets off from her childhood house, as another flashback reveals her teenage self preparing to give evidence via a video link in the trial of Ray Brooks (Ben Mendelsohn). She looks into the lens and asks Ray why he left her alone. Arriving at a modern factory on an anonymous industrial estate, Una vomits in a flower bed before going inside and asking for Ray. Scott (Riz Ahmed) the foreman shows her to the glass-panelled canteen, where everyone can see her. She is pleased to see Ray for the first time in 15 years. But he is horrified to be reunited with this ghost from his past and accuses her of being a journalist seeking to trap him into revisiting the three months of madness that ruined their lives. He has changed his name to Peter Trevelyan in the hope of making a fresh start after four years inside, but Una mocks his choice before reminding him that they were lovers when she was 13 years old and had planned to run away to Europe together before he had abandoned her. Stung by the accusation, Ray insists that he was not a paedophile, as he had genuinely fallen in love with her, and had only realised his error when it was too late. Una reveals that her father had tried to find Ray to kill him, but he avers that he has done his time and is entitled to his privacy.

A colleague pops their head around the door to ask Ray if everything is okay. But, no sooner have they gone than Una demands to know if he has slept with any other underage girls and he reminds her that he had resisted her attempts to flirt with him at a neighbourhood barbecue. She dismisses his protests and claims that her shrink told her that predators have patterns and wonders if he would also have made a move on her sister Leah (Xanthe Gibson). Before he can counter, Ray is called away to a meeting with his boss, Mark (Tobias Menzies). But Una refuses to leave and they seem to share a recollection about bumping into each other at the local swimming baths and her friends asking questions in the changing room.

Some of the workers enter the canteen for their break and Scott suggests that Una should wait in reception. But she goes for a wander around the premises and peers through a window to see Ray struggling to break the news that six of the staff will be laid off. Hiding in the stationery cupboard, she recalls telling the court how much she loved him and seeing him so ill at ease stirs her feelings for him, especially as Mark has set Scott against him by hinting that he had selected him for redundancy. As the meeting ends, Una finds Ray in his office and picks up a photograph of his wife, Yvonne (Natasha Little). She asks if she knows about his past and he nods before whisking Una away to a storeroom to avoid the furious Scott, as the rest of the workforce heads home.

As they chat, Una reveals that she has envied him the chance to disappear, as she has remained in the same house and knows people still gossip about her. Ray insists she was never a helpless victim, as she had wanted him to make a move on her and he regrets being too weak to resist her. However, he was taken by her headstrong impatience to grow up and they reminisce about the phone signals they had used and how even his car parking had been coded so they could meet in the nearby park. She remembers him bringing a blanket for them to lie on in the trees and he protests that they had mutual romantic feelings for each other than went beyond pure lust.

Mark comes looking for Ray and they take cover in the washroom. He waits outside a cubicle, as Una reminds him of the first time they had sex in a seaside bed and breakfast. But he had failed to return from buying cigarettes and she had searched the shops and pubs in the vicinity before reaching the conclusion that the surrogate father who has become her lover had used and deserted her. Scared at being alone and a long way from home, Una had phoned her parents. But, while she had tried to protect Ray, the police had insisted on her being examined and the test results condemned him.

They are interrupted by Mark barging in, but Una hides Ray in the cubicle and asks him to leave. As soon as they are alone, Ray promises Una that he had come back for her and had been appalled to find the room empty. Indeed, he had also called the cops to report her as missing. However, the enormity of their plight had dawned on him and he had gone to the pub for some Dutch courage, only for his furtive behaviour to arouse suspicion. He swears that his lawyer had forced him to testify that he had run away, as it made him seem remorseful. But he had never meant to jilt her and explains that he had felt more guilt at leaving her to face the music than he had about sleeping with her.

Certain they are now alone, Ray and Una return to the canteen, where they laugh as they sweep the items off the table tops. Admitting that he has said nothing to Yvonne, Ray asks Una if she has a job or a boyfriend. She proves evasive and asks if he ever thinks of her, as she wanders off towards the staff lockers. He concedes that he still fantasises about her and puts up no resistance when she unzips him. They undress and lie on the floor together, but when she urges him to make love to her, Ray rolls away and she asks if he no longer fancies her because she is too old. Dressing hurriedly, Ray flees and runs into Scott, who is still fuming. However, Ray shows him the redundancy list to reassure him that his name isn't on it and suggests that Mark is pitting them against each other. Scott calms down and agrees to take care of Una because Ray has to get home. But Una is not in the mood for leaving and persuades Scott to take her back to his place for a drink. As Ray dozes off after getting things ready for a garden party, Una and Scott make out on his sofa. She bursts into tears and declares that Ray is her father and that she needs to see him before she goes. Borrowing a white dress belonging to Scott's girlfriend, she convinces him to take her to the party.

Scott is puzzled when the elegant Yvonne seems not to recognise Una, but Ray spots her immediately and begs Scott to get rid of her. However, she refuses to leave and wanders into the bedroom belonging to Ray's stepdaughter, Holly (Isobelle Molloy). She lays down on the bed and remembers holding Ray's hand while riding a Ferris wheel and feeling special when he told her he loved her. Holly wakes Una up and they are chatting when Ray finds them. He asks Una to be sensible, but she runs away and Scott and Yvonne watch from the driveway as Ray catches up with Una and pleads with her not to make a scene, as he has paid for his crime and is now trying to be a good father. She hesitates when he promises that his feelings for her were pure and she walks away after he kisses her and strokes her face. As he turns back towards the house, however, it's clear that he has a lot of explaining to do.

It's easy to imagine the mind games between Una and Ray being played out with a raw intensity in front of a live audience. But, by opening out the action and embellishing it with a surfeit of flashbacks and directorial flourishes, Andrews has not only dissipated the tension, but he has also denied Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn the opportunity to give concerted performances. Instead of keeping Thimios Bakatakis's trained on the pair, as they negotiate their reunion, Andrews has allowed editor Nick Fenton to fragment their exchanges and clutter them with cutaways that enervate the serpentine exchanges as much as the pulsating throb of Jed Kurzel's electronic score.

Given that Harrower's one-act play needed expanding in order to bring it to feature length, the introduction of Scott, Mark and Yvonne makes perfect sense. But, by all accounts, Harrower and Andrews have also altered the emphasis of the narrative by making Una seem so unbalanced that one is left feeling something akin to pity for Ray, who similarly appears to have become more reactive than manipulative. Thus, instead of seeking to exploit Una's vulnerability, as Humbert Humbert does in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, Ray comes across as a decent sort of chap being denied his right to a second chance. Indeed, by having Mark turn Scott against him, he is made to seem like a serial victim who is given nowhere to hide in the cavernous and transparent spaces concocted by production designer Fiona Crombie. This may be the intention, this time round, but this approach bowdlerises rather than improves the source material and, more damningly, it ducks the issues raised in leaving viewers to reach their own judgements.

Since making her name as Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher's adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011), Mara has sometimes struggled with nuance and casting her as another damaged soul feels a little lazy after Alison Pill and Michelle Williams had garnered such enthusiastic reviews opposite Jeff Daniels on Broadway. The decision to overlook him in favour of Andrews's compatriot also seems a little eccentric, especially as the rest of the cast are so obviously not straining to maintain an English accent, as is the case with both Mara and Mendelsohn. Nevertheless, the latter does summons sufficient moral ambiguity to keep the audience wondering, while Mara veers between nostalgic and recriminatory impulses to convey something of Una's corrupted appreciation of her self worth and her sexual potency. But Ruby Stokes does a more convincing job of conveying the depth of her unswerving adoration for a man who treated her like an adult when no one else would.

For three decades now, Mancunian Gary Sinyor has steered a laudably eclectic course through the vicissitudes of the film business. On leaving the National Film and Television School, he scripted Jim Shields's BAFTA-nominated short, The Unkindest Cut (1988), before teaming with Vadim Jean to co-direct the award-winning Ealingesque study of breeding and identity, Leon the Pig Farmer (1992). He struck out alone with the romantic fantasy Solitaire For Two (1995) and the heritage parody. Siff Upper Lips (1998), which earned him an invitation to Hollywood to remake Buster Keaton's 1925 silent gem, Seven Chances, as The Bachelor (1999).

A second romcom about the world's most unromantic woman, Love Hurts (2000), was scarcely seen and the same fate befell Bob the Butler (2005) and In Your Dreams (2008). However, Sinyor enjoyed a minor success with United We Fall (2014), which centred on the efforts of legendary football manager Sir Matt Busby (Brian Cox) to coach a Manchester boys' team. But, throughout this period, Sinyor was seeking funding for a thriller about grief, faith and insight and, after 12 years of toil and frustration, The Unseen is finally available on disc.

Returning from a reading in bookshop near her Cheshire home, Gemma Shields (Jasmine Hyde) decides to have a swim in the indoor pool while Irish husband Will (Richard Flood) drives the babysitter home. However, she fails to ensure that the safety cover is firmly in place and, while she has a bath, her young son, Joel, drowns in the pool and his body is only found after a frantic search. Blaming herself for the tragedy, Gemma wants to move house. But Paul advises against any rash decisions, as he cuts his hand removing the child seat from the back of the car.

While recording an audio book of The Psalms, Gemma is so moved by the words that she has to take a break. She goes into Joel's room and faces the accusing stare of a teddy bear that says `I love you mummy' when she presses its paw. Suddenly overcome with emotion, Gemma realises that her sight is starting to blur and, in a panic, she wanders into the street, where she is found by Paul (Simon Cotton), who takes her to the nearest hospital.

Restoring her sight with an injection, the doctor (Ashley R Woods) reassures Gemma that she has no physical damage to her eyes. But he informs her that she is suffering a rare condition that can be controlled with pills. Paul has left by the time Will arrives and he rather unsympathetically suggests that his wife needs to see a psychiatrist. But he is also struggling to come to terms with the loss and Gemma overhears Will talking to Joel in his room and she tiptoes away without intruding.

A few days later, Paul comes to the house and to see how Gemma is recovering. He used to work as a pharmacist, but recently inherited a small estate in the Lake District and is currently turning one of the buildings into a guest house. Gemma shows Paul a photo of Joel and is taken aback when he reassures her that her son is in Heaven, as she doesn't believe in the afterlife. She decides to remove the batteries from the bear and goes to the baker to buy Will a treat. As she drives home, she calls to see how he is faring and is so disturbed to hear Will and Paul playing with the talking bear that he vision begins to distort on the motorway.

After a terrifying struggle to navigate a safe path, Gemma has a crash and winds up in hospital with whiplash. Will is furious with her for failing to take the prescribed tablets for her panic attacks and urges her to do as she is told and get well. But, that night, Gemma has a nightmare, in which she is trapped in the pool beneath the safety cover and can't alert anyone to her distress. She feels the need to get out of the house and asks Will if they can take up Paul's offer to stay in the Lakes.

Gemma is hurt by his hostile lack of enthusiasm and swims and makes love with her husband with a sense of alienation. However, he informs her that he doesn't want to leave the house because he can hear Joel's voice in his room. She is sceptical and, when he starts sobbing, suggests that his mind is playing tricks on him. But Will is adamant that Joel needs him to be around and Gemma feels spooked rather than consoled.

She stays awake all night to listen out for her son calling. When she hears nothing, she pleads with Will to come to the Lakes with her. Eventually, he agrees that it might do them some good, even though it's January and will be freezing. As she emails Paul to make arrangements, however, she sees Will pour Joel's goldfish into the gutter outside and is touched by his howl of anguish.

Gemma sleeps for much of the journey north and Paul is in a tetchy mood when they go to the supermarket to get provisions. He becomes irritated by a squeaky wheel on the trolley and Gemma becomes unnerved when he suddenly dashes down an aisle, as though he has seen somebody he knew. Will goes to the nearby church to light a candle and Gemma is so confused when he asks her to hold it and pray that she rushes into the lavatory to vomit.

On arriving at the cottage, the couple find Paul putting the finishing touches to their room. He mentions that his wife is no longer living with him and invites Gemma and Will to supper in the big house because he has forgotten to get any pans for them to cook with. As he prepares the steaks, Paul warns Will that the phone reception is awful and takes him to the top of the house to show him the hub.

Will drinks heavily during dinner and Gemma is embarrassed when he asks why Paul's wife has deserted him. Gemma tries to apologise, but Paul shrugs and promises to respect their privacy, as he knows they need some solitude and tranquility to reconnect. He also recommends that Gemma cuts down her pill dosage to avoid drowsiness and assures her that he is there to help should she need him.

The next morning, Will takes Gemma to the big house to show her Paul's birdwatching apparatus. She finds his mocking tone distasteful and is uneasy at being in Paul's room when he is elsewhere. So, when she sees his boat pulling into the jetty on the lake, she goes down to meet him and helps him carry the new pans back to the cottage.

While out in the surrounding countryside, Will remembers how Joel hated going for walks. They admire the view stretching out before them and Gemma is surprised when Will asks if she thinks they deserved to lose their child because they have sinned. When she accuses him of talking religious nonsense, Will storms off down the hill and Gemma is left to make her own way down in the middle of another turn.

On reaching safer ground, Will demands to know why Gemma only took one of her pills and Paul apologises for interfering. He implores them to stay for a bit longer. But, while Gemma rests on the sofa, Will tells Paul that he misses hearing Joel talking in his room and announces that he wants to return home. Paul suggests giving Gemma some soluble sleeping pills so that Will can get a decent night's sleep. But she wakes to find him sobbing in the bath because Joel is no longer communicating with him.

Needing a microphone for her laptop so that she can do some work, Gemma takes a cab into town. While walking along the street, however, the sound of a squeaking bike reminds her of the fact that Joel had only just had the stabilisers removed from his own bicycle and she has another panic attack. When her sight returns, she finds herself kneeling beside a young boy with a tricycle and she feels disorientated and that everybody is staring at her.

During the taxi ride home, the driver, Himesh (Sushil Chudasama), confides that he has just got married and has lots of pregnancy kits in his pocket. Gemma asks to buy one and returns to the cottage to find that Will has gone home because he needs to be near Joel. She screams when Paul creeps up on her, but decides to stay for a few extra days to finish her recording. However, her sight deteriorates when Paul touches the paw of the teddy bear and it speaks in Joel's voice. She takes another pill to calm herself down and asks Paul if she can borrow his car. Despite knowing that she shouldn't be driving in her condition, he agrees. But, while she is on the road, Paul calls to warn her that it might be dangerous to take strong sedatives while pregnant and she angrily tells him to butt out.

Arriving home, Gemma is disturbed to find that Will has laid out some tea lights in a pentangle on the floor. More alarmingly, he locks her in Joel's room and orders her to apologise to the boy so that he can return. Climbing out of the window, Gemma bawls her eyes out in the car and jumps when Will bangs on the door. Nevertheless, Gemma is able to drive back to the Lakes without an attack and demands to know why Paul has told Will about her pills and pregnancy. He denies being indiscreet and offers to show her the sound recording equipment he keeps at the top of the house. She puts on some headphones to listen to the birds outside. But, as she removes them, she hears `The Flower Duet' from Léo Delibes's opera, Lakmé, which had been playing on the stereo when Joel drowned. Gemma begs Paul to turn the music off and she starts to feel woozy.

When she comes round, Paul admits that his wife has gone for good and leaves Gemma to take a bath. She takes the batteries out of the bear and tries to relax. But she hears Joel's voice and immediately begins to lose her clarity of vision. Struggling out of the tub, she calls to Paul for help and demands that he lets her take a pill and drives her home. However, he insists that the medication won't help her and Gemma asks him to leave her alone. She promises Joel that she loves him and will never abandon him and packs to return to Cheshire.

The following morning, Gemma goes to the top of the house to get a signal to let Will know when to expect her. There is no answer and she idly picks up the headphones and hears the sound of thunder clapping and dripping water. Wandering downstairs, she sees Paul drive up with Will in the passenger seat. He has been sedated and barely knows where he is. She asks him to forgive her for not believing him about Joel's voice and whispers in his ear that they are going to be a family again.

The sound of a tap dripping bothers Gemma, however, and she sneaks up on Paul and finds him listening to one of her audio books on his headphones. Finally, she suspects that he is obsessed with her and, putting the batteries back into the bear, she feigns a loss of sight so that Paul has to help her back to her room. Keeping up the pretence, she starts to undress in the knowledge that he has tricked her into thinking that he has withdrawn. She calls out to him and he makes a show of opening the door to ask what she wants. Gemma claims to have a craving for smoked salmon and chocolate ice cream and snaps at him for not taking proper care of her when he proves reluctant to go shopping.

As soon as Paul drives away, Gemma tries to wake Will. She also calls Himesh to fetch her and starts trying to lug her comatose husband down the stairs. However, she hears Paul returning unexpectedly and just manages to get Will back into his room before Paul pops in to explain that he had forgotten his wallet. Keen to buy time, Gemma asks Paul to collect her things from the cottage so that she can stay beside Will. When he leaves, Gemma goes into the audio room and realises that the entire premises have been bugged so that Paul always knows what is going on.

She is so engrossed and disturbed that she only just manages to hear Paul return and pretends to be having a fit so that she bumps into him, as if by accident. But Gemma is so shocked by the new message spoken by the bear that she betrays the fact she is faking an attack and Paul calmly begins to explain the origin of his fixation. He had first heard her voice on the radio and had bought all of her audio books. Then, he had started attending her readings and his wife had walked out on him because she thought he was mad. Paul plays `The Flower Duet' and starts taunting Gemma about letting her son die because she was such a self-centred parent.

Wounded by his words, Gemma vows not to let Paul defeat her and is relieved to hear Himesh downstairs. When she calls to him, however, Paul confronts him on the stairs and throws him over the banister. He grabs Gemma and attempts to force his hand down her jeans. But she resists and manages to stab him in the foot with a blade. As he reels back, Will comes round and thuds Paul against the wall and he slumps to the floor.

Rushing to the car, the couple prepare to make their getaway. Sitting in the passenger seat, Gemma opens her laptop and opens some files that reveal that Paul had been bugging the Cheshire house and had been present when Joel had drowned. Seething that he had done nothing to save his son, Will jumps out of the car and goes back to finish Paul off. Suddenly unable to see again, Gemma is blithely unaware that it's Paul who returns to the vehicle speaking in an Irish brogue.

However, Paul lets the guise slip once they are back in the house and Gemma tries to remain calm while asking Paul about his wife. He reveals that she is still alive and assures Gemma that she hasn't fallen victim to some twisted master plan, as he could never have envisaged that she would have problems with her sight. He even admits to having got to like Will while eavesdropping on them. Gemma offers to treat the gash in Paul's foot and he is so preoccupied with his own triumph that he fails to see her brandish a pair of hypodermic needles, which she plunges into his chest. As he stops struggling and loses consciousness, she places a cushion over his face and suffocates him.

A few months later, Gemma cradles her new baby. Will looks on indulgently and it seems as though they are making the most of their second chance. But there's just a hint that all is still not quite well with Will, as the deceptively happy scene fades.

Gary Sinyor has long been intrigued by the fact that Rob Reiner followed the classic romcom, When Harry Met Sally... (1989) with the simmering Stephen King adaptation, Misery (1990). So, as he has acquired a reputation for light entertainments, he decided to make a thriller of his own. There is a distinct similarity between the obsessions driving Paul Deitch and Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) to imprison their idols. But Sinyor's storyline is far more convoluted and Paul is much less nuanced or menacing, as he is obviously a wrong `un from his first appearance. Consequently, Sinyor struggles to generate much suspense and fails to convince with a grand reveal that exposes just the far-fetched of a narrative that also bears a passing resemblance - in isolating three characters in the middle of nowhere - to editor Carl Tibbets's directorial bow, Retreat (2011), which Sinyor co-produced with Sir David Frost.

On the plus side, however, Sinyor combines imaginatively with cinematographer Luke Palmer and editor Paco Sweetman to convey the disorientation experienced by Gemma during her turns. He also makes canny use of Tom Jenkins's sound design and his remote setting, which was initially going to be a lighthouse. But he fails to bring the best out of Simon Cotton and Richard Flood, who are nowhere near as effective as Jasmine Hyde, who had worked with Sinyor on stage in his provocative biblical satire, NotMoses, and who slips between vulnerability and resourcefulness with a deftness that the overall picture can't quite match.

African cinema hasn't really kicked on since it emerged in the 1970s and 80s. Profitable mainstream industries have sprung up in Nigeria (Nollywood) and Ghana (Ghallywood), but the handful of auteurs who have made an impression on the festival scene have tended to come from Francophone countries with strong post-colonial cultural connections. Moreover, dismayingly few women film-makers have followed the trail blazed by the likes of Sarah Maldoror, Safi Faye, Farida Benlyazid and Moufida Tlatli. Thus, the release of Zambian-born Welsh debutant Rungano Nyoni's I Am Not a Witch is to be celebrated, not only because this teasing satire invokes the spirit of Ousmane Sembène's Xala (1974), Souleymane Cissé's Yeelen (1987) and Djibril Diop Mambéty's Hyenas (1992), but also because it has so much to say about the problems hindering progress across the continent and the patronising attitude of foreign powers seeking to exploit Africa's traditions, weaknesses, resources and potential.

The picture opens with a busload of Western tourists visiting a witch camp in the Zambian bush. The tour guide (Victor Phiri) explains that the women (whose faces have been painted white) are attached by ribbons to large bobbins to prevent them from flying away and killing people in places as far away as the United Kingdom. On cue, Mama (Margaret Sipaneia), Florence (Mirriam Nata) and Mubango (Selita Zulu) begin pulling faces and screaming and the visitors take their photographs and leave.

In a remote village, a woman (Eunice Mapala) trips while carrying a bucket of water from the well and turns to see nine year-old orphan Shula (Margaret Mulubwa) staring at her. Even though the girl refills the bucket and leaves it on the doorstep, the woman informs Police Officer Josephine (Nellie Munamonga) that the child is a witch who is responsible for a spate of peculiar incidents. The crowd gathered outside the office window shout their agreement and one man (Chileshe Kalimamukwento) insists that Shula chopped off his arm with an axe before admitting that his testimony was merely a dream.

As Shula refuses to confirm or deny whether she is a witch, Josephine calls witch camp custodian Mr Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), who is being bathed by his wife Charity (Nancy Murilo). He agrees to determine Shulas guilt and has a witch doctor (James Manaseh) perform a ritual involving a slaughtered chicken, a circle and a ceremonial dance. Convinced of her guilt, Banda takes Shula to the camp and introduces her to the local ruler and her fellow witches. Shula tries to run away, but she is recaptured and tied with a white ribbon that prevents a second attempt bid. When night falls, Banda has the witches sing a song, in which they declare that they are soldiers of the government.

He sends Shula to spend a night in a shack and tells her that she can cut her ribbon and be turned into a goat or accept that she is a witch and receive shelter in the camp. Unsurprisingly, the frightened girl opts for the latter and she has a tattoo etched on to her forehead by one of the witches, The following morning, she is driven with the other women attached to their reels on an orange flatbed truck so that they can work in Banda's fields. They are exhausted by their labours in the heat of the day and protest when Tembo the foreman (John Tembo) wakes them for another shift. During a break, they give Shula a blue gourd and tell her to place it against her ear so that she can hear what the teacher is saying in the nearby school. But her education is soon interrupted because Banda has plans for her.

An old man (Goodfellow Kayuni) claims to have had his dowry money stolen from his house and - when grandpa's phone finally stops ringing - Banda informs the court that Shula has special powers to identify thieves. She calls Mama for advice and she tells her to choose the man with the darkest skin. Others suggest that she looks at their eyes or works out which suspect seems the most nervous. On careful consideration, Shula accuses Nelson (John Ng'Ambi), who threatens to stone her as Banda and a cop conduct a search of his hut. However, they find the bag containing the cash and Nelson's neighbours try to beat him in the minibus before he is taken into custody.

Banda is pleased with Shula and is certain she has special powers that will impress the powerful and help make him rich. She enjoys being the centre of attention during a campfire celebration that night and smiles as she carries the basket of goodies that grandpa gave to Banda in return for retrieving his money. The next day, Banda takes Shula to his luxurious house and entrusts her to Cherry. Light skinned and with a blonde perm, she shows Shula her own ribbon and reel and explains that she was also treated as a witch before she gained respectability through obedience and marriage. She urges Shula to learn the lesson and allows her to hook her ribbon to the back of her designer blouse.

Shula enjoys her new status and picks out her next culprit without having to phone a friend. The witches are also delighted with her, as they are able to buy wigs on credit from Bwalya (Becky Ngoma) the travelling saleslady and still have enough left over to get drunk on gin. There are drawbacks, however, as one man sees Shula through the minibus window and tries to break in because his family fell victim to a witch and she is only saved in the nick of time by Banda threatening to have the fellow arrested for damaging government property. But she is equally scared when Cherry is accused of being a witch while running errands at night and she peers through the car window as young men taunt Cherry about her past.

Undaunted, Banda announces that Shula has the power to predict rainfall and takes her to see a white farmer (Travers Merrill). Huddling inside her ceremonial robes, Shula remains silent, even when Cherry drops on all fours to try and encourage her and Banda reprimands his wife for failing to teach Shula her spiel and threatens to send Cherry back to the camp unless she bucks her ideas up. He also takes Shula on to a daytime chat show, whose presenter (Innocent Kalaluka) ponders whether she is just a little girl rather than a witch when a hostile caller accuses Banda of exploiting her so that he can promote a new range of eggs designed to put life back into Zambian breakfasts.

Banda punishes Shula by sending her back to the camp and she is placed inside a large head statue. A tour party comes over to her and a white woman (Gloria Huwiler) asks why she is inside this grotesque object. But, instead of being outraged, she suggests that Shula poses for a photograph with her and promises to send her a copy. Restored to duty, Shula further annoys Banda by locking him out of the minibus while on a visit to an industrial plant and one of the workers has to climb through a window to unlock the door.

Rather than punishing her, however, Banda sends Shula to the local school for blind children and she smiles during a lesson on punctuation. Yet, during a game of Chinese whispers, she is pulled along the ground by her ribbon because Banda has been tasked by the ruler of the region (Brisky) to make it rain so that the farmers can save their crops. But, while Shula does her best by collecting maize husks and dancing in the dust, she is unable to end the drought and the other witches worry about how withdrawn and sullen she has become. In the darkness, she calls out that she wishes she had been turned into a goat, as they can roam free. However, the witches warn her that goats are eaten once they have ceased to be useful and they implore Shula to co-operate.

A cart carries a white shroud across the parched scrub and one of the passengers dumps it unceremoniously on the ground. Pulling their ribbons behind them, the witches rush over from the field and mourn the fact that Shula is dead. Back at the camp, they dress in red shawls and sing a lament for her. As they sit in a solemn circle, the heavens open and the screen whites out to show the ribbons fluttering in the breeze on the spindles attached to the frame on the back of the truck. On the soundtrack, the sound of goats bleating grows louder.

Inspired by Nyoni's own visit to a witch camp in Ghana, this is a potent feminist allegory whose stark message about the treatment of women extends far beyond Africa. Some may be confused by the odd elliptical shift and the more oblique symbolism. But the superstition and ignorance of the villagers, Banda's corrupt opportunism and the prejudice of the townsfolk picking on Shula and Cherry are readily apparent and highlight the extent to which ancient traditions and fears continue to impact upon modern life. But Nyoni doesn't reserve her ire solely for bigoted and misguided Africans, as she also criticises the condescending Western tourists whose dollars help perpetuate outdated beliefs and practices.

Capturing the rhythms of rural existence, Nyoni and cinematographer David Gallego make evocative contrasts between the hovel conditions in the wilderness and the luxury of Banda's home and the leisured lifestyles of the mostly female audience at the TV studio. She also draws a remarkable performance out of young Maggie Mulubwa, whose uncomprehending bemusement at what is befalling her makes her rebellion all the more poignant and her fate all the more tragic. Henry B.J. Phiri also impresses as the blowhard civil servant harbouring dreams of becoming a witchcraft entrepreneur, while Nancy Murilo reveals the vulnerability of a trophy wife who is incapable of escaping her cruel past. Her little sermon on respectability through subservience sounds all the more chilling with the debate about patriarchal exploitation continuing in the wake of the Weinstein scandal.

Having made a mark with shorts like the Bafta-nominated Mwansa the Great (2011), The Mass of Men (2012), Z1 (2013) and the award-winning Listen (2014), the Cardiff-based Nyoni cites Michael Haneke as a key influence (hence, perhaps, the presence of the white ribbons). But this is also a deeply personal project, as Shula is named after Nyoni's grandmother, who had defied village custom by insisting on her chieftan husband being monogamous. Apparently, her next venture will be set in Wales. But wherever she makes her films, it seems clear that Nyoni is going to be worth watching.