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13th of December 2018

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Film Review: IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK: A Sublimely Directed Tragic Story [LFF 2018] | FilmBook

Stephan James If Beale Street Could Talk

LFF 2018 If Beale Street Could Talk Review

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) Film Review from the 62nd Annual London Film Festival, a movie directed by Barry Jenkins, starring KiKI Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo, Brian Tyree Henry, Ed Skrein, Emily Rios, Michael Beach and Aunjanue Ellis.

After directing and writing the universally admired Moonlight, Barry Jenkins takes a tiny, barely noticeable step back with If Beale Street Could Talk. In many ways, the film-maker gets to build on his previously displayed strengths. The highly sensual, intimate depiction of affection between lovers is back. The intense conversations, in which the characters feel completely vulnerable are here as well, better and more impactful than ever. The film sounds and looks marvellous. The acting is again terrific. The directing is hypnotic.

What makes this motion picture inferior to the Best Picture-winner of 2016 is its lack of originality. Moonlight addressed many social issues that were successfully and even better dramatized and depicted in other films. That being said, it was a unique exploration of the different stages in a young man’s life as he comes to terms with who he is. If Beale Street Could Talk is just a tragic love story of a black family being torn apart by the oppression of the “white man” in the early 1970-s.

As one of the characters puts it: “The white man must be the devil because he sure as hell ain’t no man.” That is all there is to the message of the film. Here is an honest question – how many films with a similar subject and message have you seen in recent memory? Jenkins is a great film-maker of immense talent and it is dispiriting to realize that he is not interested in more innovative stories. His newest film says exactly the same that countless others already have, although admittedly this one is one of the better ones, maybe one of the best ones.

Outstanding Performances

The lovers are Clementine and Alonzo, portrayed by KiKi Layne and Stephan James. The rest of the characters are members of their families and common friends. Regina King, Colman Domingo, Brian Tyree Henry and Teyonah Parris deliver some of the most memorable supporting performances. However, in all honesty, there isn’t one bit of acting here that doesn’t excel. The actors who stand out of the crowd only because of their bigger screen time. The entire cast does a terrific job here.

Powerful Attention to Detail

It is tough to say if the work of the two leads here is the product of their ideas or of Jenkins’ direction. The actors take their time when delivering their lines. Not a single word is deprived of attention or emotional weight in much the same way as in that final confrontation in the restaurant between the main characters in Moonlight. We see and hear everything – every time they hold their breath before saying the bad news, when they are mustering their courage or hiding their pain. It is truly fascinating to experience, not just because it feels so real but because of the way Jenkins lights his actors and uses point-of-view shots that put us right in the heart of the drama.

A strong example of the film’s direction and style is a scene, in which two characters are speaking through phones on each side of a glass wall. There is a moment, in which both of them are just talking and pretty much standing perfectly still. At a certain point, one of them reacts strongly and he abruptly moves away the telephone handle. The tension that was built, while the actors performed almost no movements was so strong that a single fast-paced motion almost appeared to be shocking. It is not a question of a jump scare or anything like that. It is about the way Jenkins can make a conversation so authentic that every little word, movement or action seems startlingly important and relevant to the dramatic charge of the scene.

Poetic, Skilfully Sensitive Direction

The best sequence of the film is a prolonged flashback, which depicts the blossoming of the relationship between the protagonists. A certain scene in a dark room with the relaxing, underlying sound of the pouring rain is the high point of the film. It is an intimate, passionate, gorgeously cinematic moment, in which Jenkins takes it slow and for a good reason. The scene has that rare kind of atmosphere and potency, which will make the audience wish that it never ends. It’s a very rare, maybe forgotten kind of vision of love that treats the feeling and the experience of it as something special and irreplaceable. That moment is likely the characters’ brightest memory in their dark story and rightfully so, it will be similarly remembered by the audience.

Jenkins direction also elevates the film in its more familiar elements such as the depiction of the white antagonists. A monologue, delivered by Brian Tyree Henry, in which he expresses his fear of the white man is underscored by an intense, nightmarish ambience, which makes for a truly riveting scene. Another long scene which is elevated by Jenkins’ choices is showing the protagonist as he is carving a sculpture while smoking a cigar. The camera circles him, the light catches his hands, the smoke coming out of his breath and the piece of wood he is working on and if there is such a thing as visual poetry, that just might be it.

Familiar Ideas, Outstanding Execution

There is quite a lot of skill involved in the making of this film – writing-wise, directing-wise, acting-wise, cinematography-wise, music-wise. Which is why it is slightly disappointing that ultimately the film doesn’t tell us anything new. Rest assured, when the credits roll, you will be thrilled to have witnessed a human story told with so much beauty and emotional intelligence. But when you think about the bigger picture of If Beale Street Could Talk, it just ends up being a tragic story with a very obvious point, which is nonetheless told in a marvellous way. Some may be somehow let down by the fact that Barry Jenkins has not chosen a more original story. Thankfully, his latest film is so good that an objective film-goer can only be excited about whatever he chooses to do next.

Rating: 8/10

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