The “lockdown movie” may end up as one of cinema’s briefest genres. When the pandemic descended last winter, we all had to figure out how to continue working under new circumstances. Even Hollywood filmmakers. Some simply waited until restrictions were lifted; others wrote screenplays that could be made during lockdown. The short list of film projects that took advantage of these restrictions may vary in quality, but they represent a fascinating snapshot of what we dealt with during lockdown, or at least what wealthy Hollywood types were dealing with.
The results are clear: They were fighting with their wives. Earlier this year, “Malcolm and Marie” uncomfortably dramatized an all-night, no-holds-barred argument between a director and his muse, while “Locked Down” had a quarrelling couple plan a jewelry heist to escape the doldrums of quarantine. “Together” seems to split the difference, offering gallows humor, witty dialogue, and heavy moments in its attempt to represent the full pandemic experience. Starring James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan as a husband and wife who, along with their son, must survive lockdown in their spacious London apartment, it is a profoundly flawed film that works best as a showcase for its two talented stars.
In one of the film’s bolder strokes, most of the dialogue is delivered directly to camera.“Together” opens on McAvoy and Horgan walking through their home and speaking to the viewer, catching us up on their toxic relationship. Put bluntly, these two people hate each other and feel trapped in their marriage, but their misery has become its own kind of comfort, something to be discussed casually over breakfast. The husband – neither character is ever named – mentions at one point how much he hates his wife’s face. “Are you saying I’m unattractive?” she asks, offended. “No, you’re very attractive,” he responds, reassuringly. “I just hate your face.”
The screenplay dares you to reject these characters, secure in the knowledge that its actors are so smart, capable, and likeable that disdain is never really an option. McAvoy gets by mostly on his roguish charm, which is almost always a smart acting choice. It’s a performance that reminds me of what Matt Damon did in “The Martian,” another film that involved a lot of direct-to-camera acting; in both films, a charming star finally gets to relax and be themselves on camera. Horgan gets more of the heavy lifting, particularly in two long, emotional monologues detailing the death of a family member from Covid. It’s the kind of acting that can stop a film in its tracks – in a good way – and that Horgan can slip into such a nakedly vulnerable moment without losing her ability to nail the funnier, acid-tongue side of her character is a testament to her range.
It’s in the reach for something more profound, however, that the film’s grip on its balance beam starts to slip. These serious moments work in isolation – McAvoy also aces a stirring monologue that starts off about asparagus and ends in tears – but the attempts at real drama open up questions the film is not prepared to answer. The couple’s son is an oddly conceived character; he is always there in the background and is frequently referred to. But they discuss him in such cruel terms, and in clear earshot of the boy, that it confuses the viewer. Is he really there, and if so, are these people far worse parents than we have given them credit for? The film would have worked better without the kid at all, as striking narcissism is easier to forgive when the perpetrator is childless.
Then there are the film’s racial and economic blind spots. To be clear, criticizing a film’s lack of diversity is not always fair play. If a small group of White artists want to get together to make a film, they shouldn’t necessarily be dinged for that. But “Together” pitches itself as a universal story about lockdown, with its characters hardly specific enough to achieve anything more esoteric, and the fact that they are White and reasonably well-off is an obstacle to universality. Do the residents of this spacious, impeccably clean townhouse really represent the typical lockdown experience in London? The screenplay’s half-hearted discussions of politics are only used to explain the differences between its characters, and the film displays no understanding of how privileged these unhappy people actually are.
And yet “Together” mostly holds, um, together due to the simplicity of its set-up and the strength of its performances. It’s clearly less than the sum of its parts, but there is an undeniable power in the performances, and the actors clearly relish sinking their teeth into such substantial material. They make the best of it, even when structural deficiencies hold them back from really using their time well. Maybe it’s a true lockdown movie after all.
“Together” opens in theaters on August 27.