Netflix UK film review: Malcolm & Marie
James R | On 06, Feb 2021
Director: Sam Levinson
Cast: John David Washington, Zendaya
Watch Malcolm & Marie online in the UK: Netflix UK
“What is it? What do you want?” “You really wanna go there?” That’s the sound of Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) clashing in Malcolm & Marie, a 106-minute argument between a heated, passionate couple. Malcolm is a talented, successful filmmaker, whose latest film has just had its debut. Marie is an actress who has been Malcolm’s long-term girlfriend – a girlfriend who, we swiftly learn, Malcolm didn’t thank in his speech at his film’s premiere. That oversight plants the seed for a row that expands to something much bigger – sometimes, a little too big.
Written and directed by Sam Levinson, the project was filmed in secret during summer 2020 – a production that was one of the few things to be filmed during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. But single-location films have been a tried and tested part of cinema’s fabric for years, bringing an intimacy – and often an intensity – to the screen that can be gripping, devastating or ever so slightly awkward. Malcolm & Marie is all three, often at the same time.
The film understands on a raw, emotional level the way that lockdown – which has confined couples and families the world over to life in single locations – exacerbates whatever dynamic a relationship has. In the case of a strong, healthy, positive relationship, it can strengthen a bond. In the case of an unspoken issue or tension, it can turn things poisonous.
John David Washington and Zendaya sink their teeth into that with remarkable honesty and undeniable chemistry. Washington, who dazzled in Tenet, is bursting with charisma from the opening sequence, which sees him grooving through their pristine, minimalist home, while we peer in from the outside. He’s egoistic, frustrated, satisfied and devoted and looks darn good when smoking a cigarette. Zendaya matches him in every frame, voicing her discontent, pain and unwavering affection without holding back – scenes in which they silently take in what the other person has said and compose themselves before replying are wonderful to witness.
That in itself, though, is telling, because the longer the talking goes on, the more the script begins to feel slightly contrived. That’s particularly the case when Malcolm descends into a rant about film critics, in which he lambasts a “white lady from the LA Times” for her review of his film – the fact that it’s a positive review is at once relevant and redundant. This sparks an interesting speech about the way that white people view cinema – specifically stories from Black filmmakers – through a lens of political importance, regardless of subject matter, genre or tone. That blindspot skews the resulting cultural discussion, understanding and reception, placing it in a certain box in a way that doesn’t happen with other films.
It’s a genuinely intriguing debate, underlined by the fact that all art is inherently political, as someone’s race, gender, class and experiences inform the choices that they make in telling a story, whether consciously or not (Levinson, it’s worth noting, is a white filmmaker). While it’s tempting to read these outbursts as something originating from the director more than Malcolm, though, that would be to get distracted from the excellent work within the story, including the fluidly choreographed camerawork and the location’s beautiful architecture and interior design.
While the script has flashes of dialogue that don’t feel natural, Washington and Zendaya’s shifting interactions are entirely organic, and the film is at its best when you sense that they’ve workshopped and improvised their exchanges to strip away any artifice. The high-functioning dysfunctional couple raise questions of how people see themselves in a story, even when it isn’t about them, and the way our lives – and other people’s lives – feed into our own creativity. Those musings on integrity and identity, on respecting those who support and inspire us, are where Malcolm & Marie sparks into life. One scene involving a bowl of macaroni cheese will leave you with an appetite for more, even when the whole thing can feel a bit bloated. The result is at once indulgent, ambitious and entertaining – a push and pull between the personal and professional that succeeds the more personal it gets.
Malcolm & Marie is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.