Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | August 26th, 2021
Together (Stephen Daldry/Justin Martin, 2021) 2½ out of 4 stars.
It is very difficult to settle in to Together, a new film from Stephen Daldry (Trash), though that appears to be by design, as the two protagonists are right at each other’s throats from the start. They are a woman and a man, without names, played by Sharon Horgan (Dating Amber) and James McAvoy (Glass), and though they may be romantic partners who share a house and a son (even if poor Artie is just window dressing here), there appears to be very little love lost between them. Unfortunately, though, the story begins on March 24, 2020, just as England’s COVID-19 lockdown kicks off. They have nowhere else to go, either of them, and so decide to make do.
But not without letting off a little steam, speaking directly to the camera in fourth-wall-breaking performances that effectively make us the third character (again, young Artie is more construct than actual person). There’s no explanation given for this device—no social-media live-streaming on which these conversations are posted—but it’s not as if the aesthetics of drama have never seen this format before. Addressing the audience as co-conspirator goes back centuries, if not millennia. Nevertheless, rather than pulling us in, the artifice initially does the opposite, reminding us of the mechanics of filmmaking and thereby erecting a barrier between us and the characters. Intimacy is hard to achieve with people watching.
Still, Horgan and McAvoy give it the old college try, acting their hearts out with gusto. That’s as much a problem as anything, however, for the fuss and bother of their behavior is scaled more for a stage than a kitchen. We too often feel like we’re watching a play, instead of a movie, every sharp intake of breath and eye-roll designed to reach those in the nosebleed section. As a result, the emotions come off as performative, rather than genuine. The precise mise-en-scène of the camera only adds to this duplicity.
But a funny thing happens on the way to a cinematic wreck. Slowly, the narrative progresses from histrionics to quiet truths. At different stages of the coronavirus pandemic, the couple’s relationship evolves. Though they have conflicting politics and personalities, they each find a way to tolerate the other; at the same time, we begin to find them less irritating. There is still a little too much exposition in their conversation, delivering information that is purely for our benefit, yet Daldry and co-director Justin Martin, working off a script by Dennis Kelly (Black Sea), manage to right a listing ship, and by the end deliver a moving conclusion. If you enjoy your catharsis with a heavy dose of chattiness, Together might just prove compelling.