TOGETHER – Review
Pandemic lock-down was such a universal experience that it was inevitable there would be a film about it. James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan star in TOGETHER, award-winning director Stephen Daldry’s (BILLY ELLIOT, THE HOURS) take on that. The film follows a British couple from the beginning of lock-down to the present, as they shelter in place with their young son, taking us through the many shared experiences of the pandemic and the particular personal struggles of this family. The problem is that the unnamed couple McAvoy and Horgan play are notably irritating people who hate each other and complain vehemently to us, the audience, about their mutual dislike. Daldry’s film is being billed as a comedy but it is more of the uncomfortable humor type in this lock-down tale with a couple who acknowledge they already hate each other even as the door slams shut.
There is a kind of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” vibe to this tale and it also quickly becomes clear we, the audience, are in for a bumpy night, or at least for the hour and a half of the film’s running time.
What makes this film worth watching are the sterling performances. McAvoy and Horgan are put through their actor’s paces, as they go through a year of pandemic, experiences that changes them individually and their relationship. Although McAvoy is the better known actor, he is well-matched with Horgan, who gives as good as she gets, balancing their fiery, snarky back-and-forth. At first the complaints are all about each other but slowly they turn their focus to the pandemic itself, brilliantly conveying the fears, the anger, the pressures, the anguish and the all the subtle changes wrought by lock-down and the pandemic. In the hands of lesser actors, this immersion in their toxic relationship would have been unbearable but McAvoy and Horgan create an appeal beyond the crusty surface.
Stylistically, TOGETHER startles us from the start. As almost as soon as McAvoy reaches the couple’s kitchen, he turns and addresses the camera, reeling off a list of things he hates about her. At first, we don’t know if this is an internal dialog we are hearing, as she ignores him, but soon Horgan turns to the camera with her list of reasons she hates him. They then alternate between complaining to each other about the other, or appealing to us for support of their viewpoint. They seem only to agree on how much they despise the other. It leaves the audience feeling like the friend listening to a couple he/she knows bickering, a couple who take turns appealing to the friend for validation. A decidedly squirm-inducing situation.
TOGETHER is a very dialog heavy film, basically a filmed play, but that seems appropriate for its subject. With that much dialog, good acting is critical but fortunately James McAvoy, using his little-heard natural Scottish accent, and Sharon Horgan are excellent. Although essentially a filmed play, clever photography and colorful set decoration and costuming help distract us from that, keeping the focus on the actors and the unfolding crisis or moment.
Why would you agree to lock-down with someone you hate? The unnamed couple claim that they are staying together for their son (Samuel Logan), who is called Arthur by his mother and Artie by his father, but that seems unconvincing. They are mismatched from the start. She is a liberal who works for a non-profit doing social aid work, the daughter of a dentist and a mother she describes as “old school communist.” He is a conservative, who came from the working classes but is now a successful entrepreneur, who brags about his Mercedes and wealth and disparages those who do not pull themselves up by their bootstraps as lazy. He accuses her of being “holier-than-thou” and she accuses him of being cold-hearted. Why they are together is a mystery but it quickly becomes clear that this couple has co-exited in this state of mutual loathing for some time, and we suspect they both get something out of this hostile relationship.
As the lock-down starts, the couple tell us they have made the decision not to include their son’s sole surviving grandparent, her mother, in their sheltering-in-place pod .They argue her mother, who has multiple health issues, she is better off with her visiting caregivers. They hope to move her to a nursing home, called a care home in Britain, where she “will be safe.”
Even though this film is set in Great Britain, the shared experiences of pandemic are much the same as here. We start with the rush to lock-down, toilet paper shortages and store shelves picked clean, The film then takes us through the unfolding pandemic chronologically, in periodic vignettes, each starting with a text showing the current number of COVID cases in Britain, and later vaccinations. At first all their venom is directed towards each other, along with shock at empty grocery shelves and similar shortages. They don’t know how long lock-down will last but seem to believe it can’t last that long, As the COVID horror unfolds and cases soar, they become more fearful, and more anger shift towards government’s poor response, the breakdown in supply chains, and then devastating decisions about nursing homes, as they are soon able to move her mother to one.
While the couple continue to complain about each other and over-share about their sex lives, eventually the sheer weight of all that is happening during the pandemic shifts their viewpoint, and they start to think more beyond themselves. James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan are excellent and riveting in this film, fiery and caustic to start, outraged at the situation and the lack of preparedness on the part of government, and heartbroken and helpless as the pandemic reaches into their lives. There is a heartbreaking scene where human touch would matter so much but the need to self-isolate prevents it. McAvoy subtly shifts his character from hard arrogance to a more human, emotional view, a moving and touching transformation. Horgan likewise softens her judgementalness, forced to face that not all is in her control and that she has flaws like anyone. There is a moment of elation as the vaccines are distributed, before frustration emerges when vaccine refusals stymies hopes to quickly get back to normal. The film ends with the characters feeling that the pandemic experience has changed things, although there is a lingering suspicion it hasn’t.
Stephen Daldry’s tale gives us a high-energy recap of our shared pandemic experience, spiked with incisive insights, through the evolving relationship of a sharp-tongued couple, an experience greatly enhanced by shining performances by James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan. TOGETHER opens Friday, August 27, at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinema and other theaters.
RATING: 3 out of 4 stars