By Ed Symkus
A mismatched couple, trapped at home by government decree, try to maneuver and bicker their way through a Covid lockdown.
Together, written by Dennis Kelly and directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin. It opens at AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square, Showcase Legacy Place, and Showcase Randolph on Aug. 27. It will be available digitally on Sept. 14.
Is it too soon for a dramatic dark comedy about a British couple who are stuck in their home during a Covid-induced lockdown and spend most of the year bickering with each other? No, not if it’s good. Not if it’s got strong writing, acting, and directing. Together, scripted by British TV writer Dennis Kelly, co-directed by Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Reader) and first-timer Justin Martin, and starring James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan, has all three. And it’s good, really good.
The narrative covers a one-year period — dates are provided on the screen. The initial one is March 21, 2020 — the first day of national lockdown in England. Ensuing dates are accompanied by the numbers of citizens who are fully vaccinated as well as the number of deaths in the country, with both numbers rising each time they’re shown.
The film’s conceit is set up in its opening moments. A man and a woman (James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan) — their characters’ names are never mentioned — and their young son Artie (Samuel Logan) arrive at their suburban home with plenty of supplies, prepared to sit out this unwanted disturbance in their lives. But even before the food is put away, Mom and Dad are complaining about each other to each other, on topics ranging from their love lives to political beliefs to British class differences. And this is just their first day!
What elevates Together from countless others that feature quarreling couples is that this pair also directly address the viewers. They talk to us about their personal peccadilloes, which have obviously been going on for a long time. Another plus is the script’s generous use of biting comedy, with barbs bursting left and right, often at breakneck speed.
Yet when the couple momentarily calm down, coming up for air and speaking normally — going back and forth between each other and us — it’s clear that they once loved each other. But not now. And it takes very little, anything from a wrong word to an errant look, for them to revert back to yelling and cursing.
Filmed in various rooms in one location, and made up of long takes with very little camera movement, the film often maintains a stage play feel. The lack of action and locales is broken up by snatches of radio news broadcasts (“The British Prime Minister is in intensive care with the virus.”) and by physical changes in the characters as dates and numbers of deaths flash by (McAvoy’s hair gets shaggy, and later on is tied up in a man bun.).
Each return to the couple brings a new degree of intimacy between us and them, whether they’re speaking to each other or addressing us. Before long, we’re privy to the history of their rocky relationship. It’s sometimes hard to tell who will be more surprised at the revelations, the people on the screen or (potentially) the people watching. The biggest treat in that area is that their snarky humor often even makes them laugh at what the other has said.
Before these nameless folks became trapped for the long run in their own home, she was a coordinator at a refugee charity and he was a self-employed computer consultant. Ten-year-old Artie is, in his dad’s words, an “odd child,” relegated to walking around the house, hiding in corners, eavesdropping on his parents’ conversations, and never speaking. The film likely could have done without the underdeveloped character, even though it’s suggested that he’s the only reason Mom and Dad are still a couple.
Everything depends on the performances by McAvoy and Horgan — and, of course, what they do with the terrific dialogue — and they do not disappoint. They’re almost always in two-hander scenes but, on a few occasions, are given solo sequences. He plays it funny and serious and rude, often all at once. She goes at it with brazen honesty with a side order of anger. Both characters — and actors — are great storytellers.
The film’s first half contains a larger chunk of comedy and almost frantic pacing. That changes considerably when a shift in mood brings in some sobering emotional conflict, as well as some heavy talk of death by disease. There are also a couple of damning speeches aimed at the government and health officials for not doing enough in the early stages of the pandemic, including rage at antimaskers for not acting responsibly now.
But it always comes back to the couple as they bare their souls trying to make each understand the other. There are light moments to spare, even near the end, but then the question looms: Do we ever want to return to what was once “normal?”
Ed Symkus has been reviewing films and writing about the arts since 1975. A Boston native and Emerson College graduate, he co-wrote the book Wrestle Radio, USA: Grapplers Speak, went to Woodstock, collects novels by Harry Crews, Sax Rohmer, and John Wyndham, and has visited the Outer Hebrides, the Lofoten Islands, Anglesey, Mykonos, the Azores, Catalina, Kangaroo Island, and the Isle of Capri with his wife Lisa.
His favorite movie is And Now My Love. His least favorite is Liquid Sky, which he is convinced gave him the flu. He can be seen for five seconds in The Witches of Eastwick, staring right at the camera, just like the assistant director told him not to do.