Stephen Daldry digs deep into the lockdown.
Stephen Daldry’s Together, the first mainstream movie expressly about the COVID lockdown, takes its title from the annoying public-service announcement “We’re in this together.” That misery-loves-company plea hides the surrender-to-government overreach that has taken place in many private middle-class homes. Screenwriter Dennis Kelly dramatizes it through the close-quarters friction between a London couple (James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan) who are no longer in love but cohabit for the sake of their school-age child. Their bickering shows exhaustion as much as familiarity. Most importantly, they act out that good-sense corrective: “No, we’re only in this simultaneously.”
Daldry’s quick and clean production could have been about Brexit. Instead, the reality of COVID is a presence though not the film’s subject. It’s “this thing” that weighs on the couple’s domestic contract and compounds their troubles. Over the course of a year — from the March 24, 2020, beginning of Britain’s lockdown to the start of mass vaccinations and social reopening on March 21, 2021, Daldry keeps a firm, multiangled focus on the pair as their household temperaments evolve.
At first Together feels like a “two-hander” stage play, but Daldry (best known for the film and stage versions of Billy Elliot) never gets claustrophobic; moving from vestibule to the fuchsia-walled kitchen is all the opening-up needed. Daldry’s method cries “theater” owing to the perfectly reasonable fact that right now there is no theater in the classic sense of a communal activity gathering performers and audiences to share the artful expression of experience. Even before COVID, millennial theater folk had turned propagandistic and hive-minded, with playwrights, producers, and performers all preaching to the choir.
So Daldry breaks through the proscenium pretense to let his characters talk to the camera (us). And this cinematic, visual intimacy is preferable to watching Brady Bunch–like, Zoom-style squares. It emphasizes intermingled political points of view: McAvoy’s character is Tory, Horgan’s is Labour. Daldry achieves latitude by balancing invective with humor in confrontations that are always honest and leveling. The vitriol recalls Albert Finney and Rachel Roberts as domestic warriors in E. A. Whitehead’s Alpha Beta (1974). Meanwhile, brief cutaways to the couple’s enigmatic son show him listening to adult wrangling beyond his ken (but when he sings “In the Bleak Midwinter” it brings Daldry’s usual juvenile ache).
The pandemic pressure of public fears in private places reveals what Together’s middle-class partners don’t have in common. They argue about Jeremy Corbyn, socialism, and their own privileges — all soon to be shaken by COVID’s ravages. Their arguing confirms that Together is not more PSA propaganda. Whether McAvoy confesses his clash with an ethnic store clerk or Horgan complains about “affording the vaccine before frontline workers in Sierra Leone,” Kelly and Daldry refuse to flatter the narcissism of their potential audience surrogates. Instead, they expose flawed people who voluntarily shelter in place, certain that their upscale self-sacrifice is for the benefit of humanity.
At this moment, when the film industry pretends that, besides testing new means of content delivery, nothing has changed for its elites, Together dares to differ. (Two previous COVID films, Doug Liman’s Locked Down and Jay Roach’s Coastal Elites, were trite, self-congratulatory, and uncinematic, so they don’t count.)
Resentful reviews in the trade press and the paper of record suggest that Together must be doing something right: McAvoy stepping forward to comfort his distant mate; the couple coyly admitting to “bolts-from-the-blue” makeup sex; and Horgan’s monologue cursing the government for citizens “killed by stupidity, by dumbf***ery.” We’re reminded that good actors often squander their talent on junk (especially McAvoy, wasted in Split, extraordinary here), but this is first-rate first-responder art.
Together resembles the two-person holocaust that Ingmar Bergman conceived when crafting an artistic response to Sixties cultural trauma in his magnificent Shame (1968). The couple in Together experience society’s collapse (“Oh, please don’t let us be like Italy!”), then confront themselves just as do Bergman’s duo.
Leaving aside the mystery that Horgan calls “13,000 COVID Patient Zeroes” and the issues behind government failure, Together records universal private truths. Maybe the sequel will be called “Dissent.”