Steven Soderbergh's global disaster movie traces a pandemic from its origins: a cough, a handshake, a busy airport departure lounge, and, on a Hong Kong street, a man collapsing.
Networks pick up reports of a fulminant virus that causes sweats, headaches and haemorrhaging. How serious is it? Put it this way: within the first 10 minutes Gwyneth Paltrow is dead. Yes, dead! Soderbergh, with a certain clinical efficiency, shows one city, one continent, unwittingly handing on the viral baton to another while US medical bigwig Laurence Fishburne sends doctor Kate Winslet to fight the disease on the ground. Other big names catch a little piece of the action: Jude Law as a seditious blogger, Marion Cotillard as a World Health Organisation doctor, Matt Damon as the grieving husband of Patient Zero. Despite this, Contagion plays in a curiously impersonal key, envisaging the worst that could happen – deaths in the millions, social breakdown – yet refusing the easy payoffs of personal redemption. This is decidedly not from the stable of oh-the-humanity film-makers like Roland Emmerich. Scott Burns's screenplay gives us just enough of the science to sound convincing, and dispenses a few drops of acid comedy in its treatment of the media response. Elliott Gould, playing a virologist, gets the best line: "Blogging isn't writing. It's graffiti with punctuation." Soderbergh breaks his narrative into mini-plots, as he did in Traffic, and films it all through a sickly lime-green filter lest we forget that the planet is ailing. It's very watchable, in spite of some bum notes, and heartening to see that the potential world-saving immunologist is played by our own Jennifer Ehle, rivalling her previous finest hour as Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC's Pride and Prejudice. Now: please go and wash your hands.