The look of love – If Beale Street Could Talk (London Film Festival Review)

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Prepare yourselves, for Barry Jenkins has mastered the look of love. The Oscar-winning writer/director has followed up Moonlight with another tender, volatile story of romance and hardship. His latest work of art is an exhibition of passion in adversity – a self-assured paean to love that is as intoxicating as it is urgent.

An adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk takes place in ‘70s Harlem. Words from the seminal American author open the film, in an epigraph that partly reads: “Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighborhood of some American city… Beale Street is our legacy”.

The ‘Beale Street’ that Baldwin and Jenkins explore is a tale of love suddenly thwarted by criminal injustice. The couple concerned are Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James) and Clementine ‘Tish’ Rivers (Kiki Layne) – childhood best friends for whom, suddenly, romance clicked into place. A pair of destiny’s own design, their blossoming romance is halted when the 22-year-old Fonny is wrongfully incarcerated on an accusation of rape. Only 19 herself, Tish is left with the responsibility of not only acquitting Fonny, but of raising a child while doing so.

Interspersing past with present, the film is anchored by a narration from Tish, one that seems entirely distinct from both accounts – and serves to keep Jenkins’ film allied with Baldwin’s distinct literary presence. “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass”. Lifted seemingly verbatim from the novel, it’s one of many lines in the film that strike an agonising chord. The constant narrative switching might otherwise distance us from the film, but here its effects are potent – demonstrating the transtemporal power that this love wields, and embroiling us along the way.

Such is the magnetism between James and Layne, it would be easy for the supporting cast to remain peripheral. Instead, Beale Street ends up belonging almost exclusively to Regina King, who portrays Tish’s mother Sharon. Completely supportive of her daughter’s predicament, Sharon becomes fiercely devoted to Fonny’s acquittal – and in doing so, King summons up the performance of a lifetime. Meanwhile, Brian Tyree Henry continues his extraordinary year with a lingering presence that completely negates his short-lived presence on screen (not unlike Mahershala Ali’s Oscar-winning turn in Moonlight, as it happens).

As with Moonlight, it would be remiss not to mention the discernible impact of Wong Kar-wai on how Jenkins shoots and arranges these slow-motion intimacies. And while the director has certainly never shied away from his influences (the Criterion ‘Closet Picks’, anyone?), it would be doing Jenkins a severe disservice to reduce his directorial presence to that of an amalgamation of homages (à la Tarantino).

Instead, it feels as though we are living through a special moment in filmmaking – wholly unique to the canon, and the most exciting route that cinema has revealed to us since, well, Moonlight. Jenkins seems to possess an insight that few, if any, have ever accessed on the silver screen before – operating on a whole new understanding of sensitivity, of compassion, of love in its purest form.

It’s an understanding that is shared by composer Nicholas Britell, whose magisterial piano and strings on Moonlight exuded an almost inconceivable degree of emotional vulnerability. With Beale Street, Britell has again crafted a sonic marvel that captures the very nucleus of love – unrestrained, non-vocal, and deeply infatuating. For those in love and those that are yet to find it, the marriage of Britell’s stirring trumpets to Jenkins’ eye for momentary intimacy is as close to the real thing as we’ll ever get to it in an auditorium.

In If Beale Street Could Talk, love permeates. It breathes with both a jittery apprehension and an assured disposition, two conflicting states that somehow exist in a perfect union. What we’re seeing is a real love, pure and unadulterated, existing in its own plane of warmth, longing and simplicity. In Jenkins’ compassionate hands, love needs no grand backstory for its impression to be truly felt – only a gaze into the lens. Every ounce of ardour and bitter agony is construed in those eyes, in the momentary pauses that seem to last not seconds but years. This is a special film that bears ‘the look of love’, and Jenkins is on a mission to give us all the bug.

Dir: Barry Jenkins

Cast: Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Brian Tyree Henry

DOP: James Laxton

Music: Nicholas Britell

Country: USA

Year: 2018

Runtime: 115 minutes

If Beale Street Could Talk opens in UK cinemas from February 8th .