Luce review: Complex, provocative, compelling drama
Mark Harrison | On 01, Aug 2020
Director: Julius Onah
Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr, Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and Brian Bradley
Watch Luce online in the UK: Sky Cinema / NOW TV
Ambiguity suffuses Julius Onah’s provocative stage-to-screen adaptation from its very first frame, in which an unknown character drops a paper bag into a high-school locker. Co-written by Onah and playwright JC Lee, the film follows Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr), who has grown out of a tragic childhood in war-torn Eritrea to become a model student at a suburban Virginian school – captain of his track running team and, perhaps more importantly, a champion debater.
We’re introduced to Luce proper as he gives a speech to students, parents, and teachers, including his adoptive parents Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth), in a scene that leaves us in no doubt of the high regard in which he is held. The only dissenter seems to be Luce’s world history teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), who soon has cause to call Amy in to discuss her son’s more worrying behaviour of late.
“Theatrical” isn’t always the biggest compliment for films based on plays, but here, the more obviously stagey elements of the screenplay serve as a solid grounding for a story that could have been done more melodramatically. Instead, the underplayed intrigue enables the film to expertly play with your sympathies as it reveals more and more of the bigger picture.
Onah and Lee understand that your sympathies will automatically lie with Luce from the first 10 minutes alone, but the film has an impeccable knack for up-ending your expectations throughout its running time. What starts off as a drama about systemic racism nimbly traverses psychological-thriller territory in its multiple lived-in character studies.
In this regard, the more theatrical perspective makes the drama all the more compelling and unpredictable, with an internal debate that deepens after each fresh insight into Luce, Harriet, Amy, Peter and some of the characters around them, especially Brian Bradley’s DeShawn, a disgraced teammate whose fate Luce is bound to either avenge or avoid from one scene to the next.
It’s a film that’s only grown more topical since it was released in cinemas, particularly in its exploration of how black excellence is governed by white expectations and if it were only that, it would still be fascinating. But thanks to Harrison Jr’s phenomenally precise performance, it’s also an extensive rebuttal of the character binaries that are raised, broaching topics such as misogyny and mental health problems within its increasingly complex study of power.
Watts and Spencer are just as brilliant in supporting roles, while Roth shines in the moments where his more reactionary father figure comes into play. Their roles here are the meatiest that any of them have played in some time and they hold their own, even as Harrison Jr finds new ways to impress in every scene in which he appears.
In debating terms, Luce puts up a complex argument for each of its central characters but falters when it comes to their closing arguments. The lack of resolution is almost built into the system that the film explores, but the ultimate uncertainty does the story no favours. After ploughing on past several more satisfying endpoints, Onah’s forthright but isolated final image is an unnecessary cinematic flourish.
That’s not to say Luce doesn’t hit the target, only that its numerous knockout blows have all been and gone before the credits roll. Nevertheless, this beguiling and irresistible drama takes its time and fells all comers with its standout moments, whether in show-stopping confrontations or in the rare moments where the title character is alone, and thus truly free to express himself.
Luce is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of an £11.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription.