By Alex McPherson
Directors Stephen Daldry’s and Justin Martin’s new film set during the current COVID-19 pandemic, “Together,” is an intense, powerfully acted, and morally troubling drama.
The film centers around an unnamed couple in the UK struggling to maintain their sanity in pandemic lockdown. “He” (James McAvoy) is a self-satisfied, conservative Alpha Male who manages a boutique consulting firm. “She” (Sharon Horgan) is a left-leaning charity worker with an acid tongue of her own. They live a middle class existence, while neglecting to give their introverted son, Artie (Samuel Logan), much parental attention.
From the moment viewers lay eyes on them, He and She bicker incessantly, piling on the insults in semi-teasing awfulness. The two opposites are stuck together in dire times, developing some semblance of compassion toward each other and the world at large as they endure the COVID-19 emergency.
Daldry and Martin’s film, with a screenplay by Dennis Kelly, is timely to a fault — using current events that have impacted us all as a background for an irritatingly predictable narrative. Despite this, however, “Together” is still a captivating viewing experience, largely thanks to its theatrical presentation and the dynamism of the two leads.
Indeed, “Together” feels highly reminiscent of a stage play, as He and She talk directly to the camera from the first scene onwards, vying for the center of viewers’ attention. This cinematic technique successfully puts viewers in the uncomfortable position of feeling like they’re right in the thick of things with these two flawed “adults,” forced to view their chaotic conversations without a possible exit. As interactions oscillate between being mean-spirited and hopeful, smirk-inducing and devastating, “Together” is relentless during the full 90-minute runtime.
Horgan and McAvoy have tangible chemistry, and their fast-paced dialogue conveys a mostly believable relationship. They’re able to handle comedic lines effortlessly — including an embarrassing exchange about their sex life — while also nailing the more dramatic beats as the months drag on. McAvoy, likably hyper as ever, showcases the insecurities that bely his character’s cynicism. Horgan shines as someone firm in her “good” beliefs who retains her own selfish tendencies. Combined with the film’s fourth-wall-breaking presentation, He and She seem like real people viewers might know. They both dislike and, deep down, care for one another.
Still, “Together” can only stay afloat on acting talent for so long. The story, good intentions notwithstanding, plays upon real-world traumas to somewhat generic effect. A particular subplot involving She’s elderly mother is emotionally devastating but foreseeable from the get-go. It concludes with an impassioned speech from Horgan about the meaning of the word “exponential” regarding viral infection and the government’s fumbling of crucial facts surrounding the illness. In retrospect, it all seems pretty obvious for anyone who isn’t a devoted consumer of misinformation.
“Together” is packed with scenes designed to elicit tears from viewers, but it doesn’t add anything particularly new to the discussion surrounding the global health crisis, nor does it illuminate a perspective that needs to be illuminated. The protagonists are so privileged, all things considered, and their respective character arcs surrounding basic human decency and not taking loved ones for granted aren’t exactly revelatory. If films like “Together” set during COVID times become more common, filmmakers run the risk of using it as a gimmick to grab viewers’ attention, instead of exploring it from new, insightful angles. This film, unfortunately, falls into the former category.
For all its attempts at relevance and its first-rate performances, “Together” doesn’t sit particularly well amid our current climate, where there’s no end in sight regarding the virus’ evolving mutations. It brings together broad social commentary and standard plotting to end up with something above average, but markedly inessential.
“Together” is a 2021 romantic comedy-drama directed by Stephen Daldry and co-directed by Justin Martin and starring James McAvoy, Sharon Horgan and Samuel Logan. Rated R for language throughout, the movie runs 1 hour, 31 minutes. In theaters Aug. 27 and on demand and digital Sept. 14. Alex’s Grade: B-