Malcolm & Marie is a film from Sam Levinson, starring John David Washington and Zendaya. Levinson is the writer-director of Euphoria, a critically-acclaimed and award-winning TV series starring Zendaya. The winning combination opt to experiment with cinema taking a deftly written screenplay, which could have been written for the stage, and turning it into this intimate romance drama centring on a director and his girlfriend’s relationship.
Instead of a chance encounter on a train destined for Vienna, this established couple are deconstructing their relationship after attending a premiere with life-changing consequences for both of them. One set for stardom on the back of an excellent film and the other’s dreams deferred by missed opportunities, the drama stirs up a lot of unresolved feeling and discontent as a public expression of gratitude results in a major faux pas.
Zendaya is older than she looks, creating a curious sexual tension between the characters, exacerbated by way of our voyeuristic perspective. From a shimmering evening dress to even skimpier outfits, the sylph-like actress commands her magnetic looks and owns the part of Marie. Cleverly echoing her role in Euphoria, it’s easy for her character’s back story to exist, possibly even an unofficial continuation of Rue under Levinson’s watchful eye. Having used her screen presence to great effect in the new Spider-Man series and The Greatest Showman, Zendaya just seems to be getting better and better.
Equally promising and starring opposite her is John David Washington, whose solid lead performance in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman serves as a precursor to his energetic co-lead performance in Malcolm & Marie. While egotistical and unafraid to peacock, his natural charisma tempers his performance and keeps him authentic and grounded enough to be fixated yet relatable. Malcolm makes a wonderful contrast to Marie, who while being a wallflower is full of verve and able to duke it out with Malcolm when it comes to identifying and analysing his shortcomings.
What makes this romance drama so compelling is the pair’s on-screen chemistry. The screenplay is a rollercoaster of emotions and insightful commentary into the art of film-making against today’s political landscape. Yet, as powerful and incisive as the dialogue is, it would be lost without the conviction and passion of its rising stars. The love/hate atmosphere is palpable as fuel and fire keep this locomotive churning full steam ahead. Reeling from combative to romantic, it’s a precarious battle of wits and a wonderful balancing act as the aftermath of the premiere plays out in next to real-time.
The quickfire screenplay’s coarse language is overplayed to the point of simply being crass but it’s also smart enough to give it the benefit of the doubt. The verbal jousting and gamesmanship of romance keep it entertaining and substantial, invested in real emotion and tackling pertinent issues in the creative industry. Being a two-hander romance drama in the vein of Before Sunrise, Levinson realises the stage play limitations of relying so heavily on two actors. Modern audiences tire much more quickly without a constant sense of action or progress, which is why he keeps things moving at a good pace. Playing like a tennis match, the couple engage in discussion, arguments and some horsing around – weaving in and out of love.
Filmed in black-and-white, classic textures of the colour scheme enhance the drama with so many close-ups you actually welcome the buffer. Water, smoke and mirrors create a magical atmosphere when it comes to shooting in black-and-white, which is why they’ve become trademarks of the choice. The decision also relegates Malcolm & Marie to a niche selection of films ranging from Clerks to Roma. Gathering the independent spirit of Kevin Smith’s shoestring budget cult classic it blends this with the fly-on-the-wall majesty of Roma to create something beautiful yet grounded.
The silky cinematography is another highlight in this refreshing and bold romance drama. While a one location film could feel stagnant, the artful composition of shots and variety of moods keeps things upbeat, focusing in on the co-leads. It’s no secret, this is an acting showcase. You can see why Washington and Zendaya were drawn to the film, taking producer credits and giving them a chance to truly flex their range as actors. Passionate, well-balanced and intelligent co-lead performances drive this focused and artful drama pivoting off great chemistry.
Malcolm & Marie’s as entertaining as you would expect a couple’s bickering and romantic squabbles to be, examining inspiration, ownership, frame of reference and talent in the process. While the screenplay is dexterous and sharp-witted, the frequency of coarse language is distracting and mostly unnecessary. Still, the artful choices around the colour and cinematography help smooth things over aided by two charming first-rate performances from two of this generation’s most promising new talents.
The bottom line: Impassioned