Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5

dir-scr Rebecca Hall
prd Rebecca Hall, Forest Whitaker, Nina Yang Bongiovi, Margot Hand
with Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, Andre Holland, Alexander Skarsgard, Bill Camp, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Justus Davis Graham, Ethan Barrett, Ashley Ware Jenkins, Stu S Becker, Tom White
release US 27.Oct.21,
UK 10.Nov.21
21/US Netflix 1h38

holland skarsgard camp
london film fest

Is it streaming?

negga and thompson
Shot in iridescent high-contrast monochrome, this brittle period drama raises some powerfully haunting themes before its more standard plot takes over. Finely written and directed by Rebecca Hall, and circling around a remarkably layered performance from Tessa Thompson, the story offers a lot to think about. This helps make the film involving even when the metaphors get a bit obvious, and when the story seems to veer off-topic.
On a day out in 1920s Manhattan, Irene (Thompson) pretends to be a white woman, which allows her to have friendlier service in shops and cafes. Then she runs into Clare (Negga), a friend from school who is hiding her Black heritage from her racist husband John (Skarsgard). Back home in Harlem, Irene has a happy life with her doctor husband Brian (Holland) and their sons Ted and Junior (Graham and Barrett). Then Clare drops in for a surprise visit, longing to connect with her roots. And she begins to rattle Irene's carefully maintained foundations.
The issues surrounding racial prejudice and identity are vividly layered into the script and cinematography, which gives the film constant echoes of thoughtful observation. So when Hall drops in some obvious symbolism, it feels out of place. And when the story spirals into jealousy and fear, the added tension begins to drown out the more interesting ideas. That said, it's superbly well-shot through Irene's perspective, which brings out the emotions in some surprising ways.

At the film's epicentre, Thompson delivers her most subtly textured performance yet as a smart woman whose mind begins to spin out of her control. Basically, Irene begins to think about issues much bigger than her, and how she fits into American society. Her connection to Brian is beautifully played alongside the expressive Holland. Negga gives Clare a magnetic charisma that makes it easy to see why people are drawn to her without question. And Skarsgard plays John unapologetically, as a man who never doubts himself.

When Irene, Brian and Clare are grappling with bigger issues of culture and identity, the film has a powerfully textured resonance that makes the most of its impressive imagery. But this means that when the plot locks in on a much smaller issue as its driving force, it feels like the film loses some of its momentum. It's still compelling and involving, but it simply isn't as complex or involving as the more haunting questions about how society puts too much importance on skin pigmentation.

cert 12 themes, language, violence 10.Oct.21 lff

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© 2021 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall