Malcolm & Marie, 2021.
Directed by Sam Levinson.
Starring John David Washington and Zendaya.
Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) have just returned from the premiere of his latest film. It’s late and someone is spoiling for a fight.
This black and white arthouse exercise from writer director Sam Levinson has been loved and loathed in equal measure. Some critiqued the arguments around race representation within cinema, while others were riled by pot shots levelled at film criticism as a whole. That this single location, hyper stylised two hander has raised some hackles is an understatement. However, to ignore those verbal gymnastics, overlook such powerful performances and get wrapped up instead by opinion is missing the point.
What people seem to forget is that Malcolm and Marie are not reinventing the wheel through their dialogue exchanges. John David Washington and Zendaya have not intentionally created something vitriolic to rile, upset and alienate audiences. That Sam Levinson uses these characters to imply a lack of knowledge within critical film circles, only reflects the feelings of some of those who work within them. To then undermine cinema itself by illustrating the hypocrisy inherent within an industry which creates nothing, should also be taken with a bucket of salt. Making any film is hard enough without the innumerable obstacles which hinder most productions from start to finish. Fragile egos, unchecked nihilism and a desire for recognition mean casualties are inevitable.
At its heart Malcolm and Marie is an examination of that process from the perspective of these people. Partners in love and partners in life, held together by the thing which pushes them apart. That they feed off the instability of each other in a self-destructive series of events, means that empathy is in short supply for both sides. Shifts of power within their dynamic may be handled with care, but the emotional aftermath is devastating.
Some might consider this film to be overindulgent, distracted by its own intelligence and lacking in substance, but there is room for debate. Both actors came on as producers for Malcolm & Marie, but never grandstand or overshadow. Labrinth provides a perfectly pitched musical infusion that punctuates drama, adds atmosphere and makes this film cool. Meaning that portrayals are aided and abetted rather than overrun by a score peppered with jazz influences.
In terms of performance, they are both good but she is better. John David Washington comes with a legacy which includes Tenet and BlacKkKlansman in tow. He is a fully formed film star, but it is with Zendaya that the real star power resides. That she goes toe to toe for almost two hours with him and captivates without compromise is commendable. For those who kicked up a stink over the age gap prior to release grow up and pay attention. That has no bearing on ability, propriety and even less to do with performance. Beyond the intellectual showboating which dominates some of the exchanges, it is Zendaya’s handling of crucial dramatic shifts within the narrative that impress so easily.
Silence is savage in this scenario and both actors exploit it perfectly. Minor facial movements, momentary glances and constantly changing demeanours add depth without dialogue. Each actor has their own phone book of phonetics to memorise, so you can imagine these sequences offered some respite. Beyond these selective moments of dead air Malcolm & Marie is relentless. Visually it courts your attention, demands adulation and is self-consciously stylised without exception. Verbally it revels in its own omnipotence and browbeats you into indifference by the conclusion, feeling oddly unresolved. However, it remains an intriguing proposition if only to see two would be A-lists showcasing their considerable range for fun.
Malcolm & Marie is available to stream on Netflix now.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★