From jump street, one must know Together will not be a film for everyone. I don’t mean this in an “it isn’t for the casual viewer” kind of way, either. No, Together has a particular rhythm and deals with a topic that remains very much an open and ongoing wound. There will be a great many people it will leave cold, upset, or angry, and it will absolutely not be because they “didn’t get it.”
All of this disclaimer aside Together is very much my kind of thing. You know…in so far as any film about living through multiple COVID lockdowns can be someone’s thing.
Together Likely to Divide Audiences
The story is simple. There’s a couple referred to only as He (James McAvoy) and She (Sharon Horgan). They live together in suburban England with their son Artie (Samuel Lang). They insist they hate each other and only Artie keeps them together. Now with the pandemic, they have a second, far darker reason to stay.
As the audience, you’re the fourth member of their quarantine bubble. As they bicker, explain, joke, and struggle, they do so directly to camera, directly to you. You’re their confidante and their confessor. You bear witness as they do what we all did during lockdown(s): find new hobbies, try to wrap our minds around this moment, find previously untapped strength, and utterly unravel. Often, all at once.
If this sounds more like a play, well, that’s because it more or less plays like one. Save for a few establishing shots, the only set is the couple’s row house. But that doesn’t mean the film has a stale or flat visual sense.
Directors Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, working with Cinematographer Iain Struthers, give a sense of life to the camera. Every scene gives us a new look at the house. Even as most of the “action” revolves around the kitchen—as family life tends to—each return to the space frames it from a different angle.
The compositions are never intrusive or overwhelming, though. It feels like having a cup of tea in someone else’s kitchen. The camera acts as the audience’s eyes and behaves like a person in conversation would. The point of view tightens or widens at times and, occasionally, moves to follow a character’s pacing. Primarily, though, it sits and takes it all in.
Those choices all serve to center and showcase Dennis Kelly’s script. It’s rough, complicated stuff. It shows, in microcosm, how the global health crisis made so many of us act out of character, sometimes for better, often for worse. It’s also nakedly political. It is an everyperson story, but that doesn’t mean Kelly is interested in stripping it of its point of view.
Sometimes it works, as when He wonders how the government seemed caught so unaware. Other moments will prove more divisive, as when She delivers a lesson on what exponential means in practice when it comes to COVID. Horan makes it both brutal and powerful, but it is hard to deny that you did just experience a lecture on the term “exponential.”
Unfortunately, the script is frequently like this, uneven in its attentions. Both McAvoy and Horan are excellent. Horan, in particular, who most Americans will know as a comedic actor from films like Game Night, especially surprises with a performance that gets rawer as the film unfurls. However, McAvoy receives the lion’s share of the screentime and the visible arc.
Horan does change throughout the film, but most of it happens without us seeing it. It is announced rather than arrived at. McAvoy, on the other hand, we get to watch him struggle with himself, his past, and his politics. It’s a great piece of work, but the unbalance it brings disappoints. There are only two characters, and they have equal billing. Why is the man’s journey the only one we actually get to see?
Given how the fog of the pandemic still clings to us—the degree to which depends on your geography and politics, perhaps—the film may prove simply too much. Many people don’t want to live a tragedy on-screen that’s still waiting for them outside, understandably. Together’s single location, three-character staginess might also be off-putting. The insularity and claustrophobia will bond many to the prickly leads even as they get difficult and ugly. Others will find it too distancing and unpleasant.
Nonetheless, Together still arrests. It should find itself a very receptive audience of people looking for some sense that no matter how isolated we feel, others — just down the street and across the world — feel the same. Together, at its best, is the rare movie that doesn’t just spark empathy but makes the viewer feel empathized with.
Together is in theaters now, check your local listings for showtimes.