In the inchoate days of COVID, like everybody else, I reached out to old friends with whom I hadn’t spoken in months, maybe a year. One of whom, a cineaste and crime writer in California, echoed one of my early observations: “There’s going to so many pandemic movies now.”
This stands to reason. Whatever the crisis, whether it’s Vietnam, 9-11, the Iraq War, the 2008 recession or the killing of unarmed Black men, Hollywood takes the country’s temperature and produces art that tries to make sense of collective unease. For the purposes of the big studios, though, a zombie pandemic, and not an invisible respiratory illness, might have proven more fertile ground for visual storytellers. The images shared over the past 17 months — de-peopled metropolises, shuttered businesses, lonely people dying on ventilators, precipitously active stock tickers — do not lend themselves to big-screen drama.
Perhaps one day we’ll see the origin story of COVID-19, observing in close-up the pangolin transferring the virus to a bat, or a Wuhan lab worker letting a storage container of death slip from his fingers. But so far, this is not an action-packed pandemic. It’s an interior pandemic, a space for reflection, for character development over plot. It’s the realm of the indie film, not the blockbuster.
In theory, this approach might be preferable, though attempts to creatively capture the zeitgeist have so far fallen flat, because they are indistinguishable from watching Zoom theater. Jay Roach’s quarantine-shot HBO premiere Coastal Elites, with its series of direct-to-camera monologues, was merely anti-Trump catnip, buckling under its own self-satisfaction and an inherently limited format.
And now we have Stephen Daldry’s Together, which is in theaters now following its premiere on the BBC in June. It’s another COVID-safe production, and likewise a hermetically sealed feature that never leaves the house of its unnamed cosmopolitan couple, played by James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan. He runs an IT business — or at least he did, in the Before Time — and she works for a nonprofit aiding refugees.
They are nobody’s definition of a perfect match, and not just because her politics are socialistic, his are conservative, and both are outspoken about it. We are introduced to them mid-bicker, which seems to be their communicative baseline; even notes of affection are delivered with ironic digs at each other, and when they truly tick each other off, the results are ugly.
It’s a coupling more of convenience than love, one spurred more by the birth of their child than some undying need for each other’s company, but it’s one that could be held together when they commuted away from their toxic tendencies. But months of lockdown have brought to the surface their joint capacities for cruelty. Apparently, we learn, one of them once tried to poison the other with wild mushrooms, and not in the kinky, mutually agreed-upon, Phantom Thread sort of way.
Together is presented as an episodic series of seven scenes set chronologically, from the first day of lockdown to the U.K.’s rollout of the first vaccines, with subtitles listing the country’s death count at the beginning of every sequence. This grounds the action in an inescapable reality, and in a movie with a single set, it’s the film’s only grim reminder of the chaotic world outside the couple’s bubble. The script, by Dennis Kelly, is peppered with universal references to life during COVID: the empty highways, the embrace of new hobbies, the selflessness and impossible decision-making of health care workers, the effrontery of the publicly maskless. Choosing coffins online.
The result can be moving and relatable, but the movie’s stylistic approach ultimately hobbles its good intentions. “He” and “She” spend more than half the movie breaking the fourth wall and sharing their thoughts and experiences with us, their unseen sounding boards. With its largely unbroken takes and stagey presentation, it’s a product tailored for experiencing on a webcam, not a cinema screen. It’s more “content” than “motion picture.”
There are a few precious times when Daldry abandons this conceit, and Together transitions to multi-camera coverage. Suddenly, McAvoy and Horgan get to drop the pretense, and we feel engrossed in the characters’ acidic back-and-forth. What once was arch is now raw, and the movie’s ambition — as a kind of Scenes From a Marriage in the time of corona — come to the fore. Then we’re back to the Zoom style again, and its alienating grammar.
Together has enough to say about the way we, not just well-off Londoners but people everywhere, just tried to get to the next day in a time of global tragedy and upheaval, and it makes cogent points about the initially sluggish, confused and death-dealing governmental response to the outbreak, which Americans will certainly appreciate. But for all its correct intentions, it’s a movie still mired in a makeshift art form, shot with a paradigm to which, like face masks and plastic shields and equine medicines, I’m eager to say goodbye.
TOGETHER. Director: Stephen Daldry; Cast: James McAvoy, Sharon Horgan; Distributor: Bleecker Street; Rated R; Playing now at AMC Rosemary Square in West Palm Beach, Living Room Theaters at FAU, the Classic Gateway Cinema in Fort Lauderdale, and AMC Sunset Place in South Miami