James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan’s Performances Hold Their COVID Drama Together

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James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan’s Performances Hold Their COVID Drama Together

Early attempts at making movies that deal with the coronavirus pandemic couched their anxiety in genre as a form of emotional protection. Locked Down wasn’t just a grating farce, but one that also devolved into a sloppy heist. Songbird’s pessimistic dystopia went so far into a worst-case scenario as to be tastelessly ridiculous. Host, the most successful, openly grappled with isolation through an entity-summoning, video-called séance. At the core of these films is fear. Fear either metaphorically morphed into a malevolent ghost, plucking unsuspecting friends from their Zoom windows while the rest of us sit around watching helplessly, or overrun by narrative coping mechanisms. Social distancing? This was subject distancing, intended for our safety, and it rarely worked as intended. But Together, from director Stephen Daldry and writer Dennis Kelly, succeeds by candidly approaching the subject head-on—literally, as its two-handed drama starring a couple played by James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan is a moving, sharp and charmingly black-humored film of direct address.

McAvoy and Horgan aren’t married, but in every sense, they are Together: They have a son together, they live together and, now, they’re stuck together more than ever as the film delivers temporal snapshots ranging from the early panicky days of COVID-19 to the emotional and physical rush brought on by vaccinations. The single-setting approach only enhances the intimacy brought on by the bold narrative style, toying with the stagey aesthetic to keep us just as stuck with them as they are with each other. There’s no getting away when their acerbic jabs cross the line; no escaping their gaze when their hearts begin to break or their losses become too much to bear. It’s an ambitious approach, and one that would completely flop without McAvoy and Horgan giving two of the year’s best performances.

Given some of Utopia scripter Kelly’s sharpest writing—taking on the U.K.’s COVID-19 response in a series of vignettes that ramps up from the indie smallness of a single couple’s experience to The Big Short’s raging 10,000-foot view—the pair puncture each other and the swirling, anxious chaos beyond their front door. Long takes allow McAvoy and Horgan space to weaponize their charisma, demonstrating a volatile range utterly relatable to a shellshocked global populace. Whether weepingly vulnerable, jaggedly severe or some terrible in-between (ruining tender moments with despairing doom or adding unintended pH to an acidic remark), the duo convincingly embody the self-destruction of trauma. McAvoy’s all bluffing smarm, redirecting his nerves into productive movement—gardening, cooking, smoking—until he reaches his breaking point. Horgan pulls from her Catastrophe character, slinging fire with a smile. Sparks fly when they spar, but the sparks of blade meeting whetstone. It can be a lot, amusing as its romance via The Thick of It can be. As they go from hating each other to leaning on each other to loving each other and back again, it’s like wading through that Saw pit of syringes.

This can deaden the senses, especially considering that Daldry does only a little with his framing to avoid visual dullness in the home’s few rooms. It’s not quite enough movement to engage, not quite enough stillness to instill claustrophobia. But even through its blistering passages of mudslinging, rhythmic missteps and dramatic foibles—sometimes a scene shows its hand a bit too early, other times ramps up with nary a hint of realistic humanity behind the dictates of the conversation’s arc—looking at McAvoy and Horgan, as they look right back at you, is pretty much all you need. Their easygoing choreography and keen blocking maintain tension if not intense visual pizzazz, as they work through just enough detail for callbacks (a friendly nurse’s name; their son’s mealtime obsession) and slice hypocrisy to ribbons. And for the brief moments that they find solace in each other—or are left without one another, which finds the same emotion from the opposite side—it can be heartbreaking.

Sure, it’s timely to a fault. A final needledrop—an embarrassing dubstep mix of “Soon May the Wellerman Come,” the aural hallmark of a mid-pandemic TikTok fad—is evidence enough for that. But its earnest attempt to struggle through the early emotions brought on—and one soon hopes, left behind—by the coronavirus makes Together a poignant relationship drama and a well-constructed emotional documentation of a preventable disaster’s immediate fallout. That it maintains a beaten, bloodied optimism by its end is admirable; that it convinces us to believe it is pretty damn incredible.

Director: Stephen Daldry
Writers: Dennis Kelly
Stars: James McAvoy, Sharon Horgan
Release Date: August 27, 2021

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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