If Beale Street Could Talk
Stars: Stephan James, Kiki Layne, Brian Tyree Henry, Regina King, Colman Domingo
For the follow-up to his melancholy masterpiece ‘Moonlight’, writer-director Barry Jenkins adapts James Baldwin’s ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’, but what should be an ideal match turns out a disappointment. Set in 1970s Harlem, it charts the troubled romance between young sculptor Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (James) and his sweetheart Tish (Layne), with the latter also supplying a voiceover. Their marriage plans are derailed when Fonny is framed for sexual assault by a racist cop and jailed. When Tish announces that she is pregnant, their families struggle to secure Fonny’s release. The picture suffers from an over-prettified aesthetic (Wong Kar-wai’s ‘In the Mood for Love’ is a stated influence) with its glamourous central duo and sun-dappled photography, which, while illustrating the rapture of young love, also undermines the supposed hardships the characters are undergoing. This excess of self-consciously ‘transcendental’ moments, coupled with the poetic voiceover, not only feels more redolent of Terrence Malick’s inferior later work, but results in the narrative almost grinding to a halt. Only in two sequences does the drama take flight: the first a scene where Tish’s parents (Colman Domingo and Regina King, both excellent) announce her pregnancy to Fonny’s more conservative family, which sees the director skilfully steering audience sympathy as family dynamics are revealed; and a second in which Fonny’s supposedly carefree friend Danny (‘Atlanta’s’ Brian Tyree Henry) opens up about his horrific experiences in prison, as an increasingly distorted version of Miles Davis’s ‘Blue in Green’ plays in the background. Otherwise this feels more a film to admire from a distance than embrace.