Review: If Beale Street Could Talk

Fear. Fear of God. Fear of money. Fear of the police. Fear of the future. Fear of the past.

Fear of a corrupt judiciary system. Fear of family.

Barry Jenkins’ third feature film If Beale Street Could Talk deals with all this fear, and yet love is the all conquering force. To paraphrase the tagline – love is trusted all the way.

Based on the 1974 James Baldwin novel of the same name, Jenkins’ camera takes us into the world of 1970s Harlem, New York, immersing us in the sound and feeling of the bustling streets.

Narrated by Clementine ‘Tish’ Rivers (KiKi Layne), we are told, in non-linear order, the story of her and fiancé Fonny (Stephan James), and how he came to be wrongly jailed for rape, and her battle to clear his name before the birth of their child.

It’s a complex story, to say the least, as every character has a view, intentions and set of circumstances to deal with. The supporting cast is full of well drawn characters, and despite having two leads who are enamoured with each other, love feels strongest in this supporting cast.

The love Tish’s mum Sharon (Regina King) shows, in supporting her in ways only a mother could, the love that the two grandfathers-to-be show for their children, played by Colman Domingo and Michael Beach and the risks they are prepared to take for this.

The sisterly love from Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), in protecting her sister from her hostile in-laws. The platonic love from Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry), whose heart-to-heart with Fonny is as endearing as it is heartbreaking.

And the love from strangers – waiter Pedrocito (Diego Luna), landlord Levy (Dave Franco) and lawyer Hayward (Finn Witrock) – for whom it would be far easier to look away.

Though a film with lots of dialogue, the story could be told purely through its colour and sound.

A rich palette of nostalgic reds, blues, yellows and greens bleed into nearly every scene, painting a picture themselves, and Nicholas Britell’s score (which is deservingly up for Best Original Score at the Oscars) pillars home every emotional tether.

Despite your best guesses, the picture always leaves you one brush behind, just when you think there’s a clear resolution in sight. Tish’s journey to clear Fonny’s name isn’t going to be easy – history, and the present, tells us that – but Jenkins still manages to have shocks and impact with every turn.

Tish and Fonny are both subject to close up shots a huge amount, and whilst this may normally seem a lazy method of showing emotion, here it captures the nuance of every twitch and quiver, and its repeat use creates an intimacy between the characters and audience which only draws you into their story further.

Sex in films can easily be meaningless, sex scenes tend to be poorly executed and awkward.

Not here, Tish and Fonny’s most intimate scene focuses on the meaning of the act they commit, lifelong friends taking a step they can never turn back from.

The trepidation with which they both act is artfully choreographed, capturing the intimacy with which they leap into previously uncharted waters in their relationship.

There are a few baggy scenes, which could do with being trimmed slightly, and the aforementioned close ups might be responsible for this at times, but they don’t derail the emotional momentum of the film.

The 70s setting isn’t in-your-face ostentatious, it doesn’t play the setting for nostalgic brownie points, instead the costume and sets look thoroughly lived in, an authentic slice of a bygone era.

The same can be said of the songs we hear that fill their lives, Nina Simone and Al Green, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, all deftly cut into the background, never feeling shoehorned in.

With If Beale Street Could Talk Jenkins has brought his masterful touch to the screen again, understanding the language of love with a subtlety and brevity that entices and enthrals the audience throughout.

If Beale Street Could Talk has a limited release from February 8, before expanding to more cinemas on February 14.

Image courtesy of Team Picturehouse via Twitter, with thanks.

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