Malcolm & Marie

 

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A drama featuring just two players that proves to be quite out of the ordinary.

 
Malcolm & Marie  

Marie and Malcolm

 

Most films make their appeal to an audience through the story and the characters involved in it, something which if all goes well is enhanced by the chance to appreciate good acting and to admire the techniques used in the filming. For once, though, we have in Malcolm & Marie a film which, despite containing two splendid performances, fascinates in a different way. That's just as well because the film suffers from weaknesses that might otherwise have prevented it from working as effectively as it does.

 

The novelty that one finds in Malcolm & Marie is connected with how it came about. It tells the story of a film director in his thirties - Malcolm Elliot played by John David Washington -  and his 26-year-old partner, Marie (Zendaya). We meet them just after the triumphant premiere of Malcolm's latest film, one likely to make him a hot property, and the time scale covers only the few hours which see them spend that night in a house in Malibu provided for them by the production company. Consequently, what we have here is a piece with only two characters. Films limited in that way are rare and when they can be found - as was the case way back in 1952 with The Four Poster - they are likely to be based on a two-hander written originally for the stage. In this instance, however, Sam Levinson, the writer/director and son of Barry, set out to create a work that could be filmed relatively easily despite the restrictions imposed by Covid-19. In addition to having no subsidiary characters, the piece offers another advantage in these circumstances: it requires only a single setting, the house interior accompanied by one or two exterior views.

 

But, just as if the film had originated in the theatre, the single location does encourage Levinson to over-direct some of the early scenes - it's as though moving the camera a great deal or getting the players to pace around the rooms will help to distract those who might otherwise compare it with a stage work. Fortunately, his approach settles down as the film proceeds, but that does not prevent the film having a theatrical feeling because the dialogue exchanges are so central to the piece. In consequence of that and because the couple here are often at loggerheads with dialogue that can be biting, some critics have compared Malcolm & Marie with a film that was taken from a stage play and which is famed for its caustic comments, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Nevertheless, it was another work which originated on the stage which struck me as the most relevant parallel, namely John Osborne's Look Back in Anger.

 

Levinson's dialogue here incorporates two distinct elements that fuse neatly. Although the main subject is the relationship between Malcolm and Marie who have been together for five years, the fact that Malcolm is a filmmaker makes it natural that talk about cinema should feature. A substantial time is devoted to diverting comments on this subject and this is all the more stimulating because there is often a humorous slant to it. That applies particularly when Malcolm rants about a review that he dislikes. It's one that actually praises his new film, but he takes against it because it was written by a critic for the L.A. Times who is both white and a woman. Elsewhere film issues touched on include both well-established ones such as arguments about the director as auteur and current questions concerned with authenticity and whether or not a director's sexuality is relevant to what themes he should tackle on screen. Levinson neatly links this side of the film with its main theme. He does so by making Malcolm's film a work that has a central character who is dealing with drug addiction. It is apparent that his choice of material had only come about due to his having helped Marie at a time when she was struggling with this very addiction. Even so, although Marie had been an actress, Malcolm had not cast her in this role and had not even thanked her in his speech at the premiere for her contribution in making the film possible. It is this omission that triggers the resentment she expresses that evening and it happens in such a way that it leads to a significant questioning of their whole relationship.

 

Look Back in Anger was noted for the diatribes of its central character, Jimmy Porter, and for his bitingly critical rhetoric. Relishing that was a key factor in the appeal of the play. Levinson's dialogue is not quite of that quality and it does suffer at times from the boring repetition of expletives, but even so the enjoyment we get from the language is somewhat similar. That very fact is itself evidence that this screenplay does have a theatrical feel to it and does not always seem natural, but on its own terms it works. The film comments are enjoyable for their own sake aided by the tone in which they are expressed but what involves us most deeply are the remarks that relate directly to the couple’s relationship. The film is more sympathetic to Marie than to Malcolm and admirably complex in showing us the bond that unites two very different people. If Malcolm is clearly self-centred and arrogant, we can also see how each of them has genuine rapport with the other which satisfies needs on both sides. As we realise this, we ponder not just what is best for Malcolm and Marie but such relationships in general. This is aided by the performances. Washington is on fine form and seizes his big moments admirably yet it is Zendaya who seems the key player. Above all, though, what makes Malcolm & Marie a rewarding work is less the story than the range of responses and speculations triggered in us by the words spoken. In passing I should add that the photography by Marcell Rév in black and white is excellent and that Levinson makes interesting play with songs heard in the background that in themselves invite comparisons with the situation in which Malcolm and Marie find themselves.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Zendaya, John David Washington.

 

Dir Sam Levinson, Pro Kevin Turen, Sam Levinson, Ashley Levinson, John David Washington and Zendaya, Screenplay Sam Levinson, Ph Marcell Rév, Pro Des Michael Grasley, Ed Julio Perez IV, Costumes Samantha McMillen and Law Roach.

 

Little Lamb/The Reasonable Bunch-Netflix.
106 mins. USA. 2021. Rel: 5 February 2021. Cert. 15.