It’s been 18 months since the first day of England’s national COVID-19 lockdown, and eight months since the first COVID-19 lockdown movie about a squabbling London couple who can’t stand to be stuck with each other under the same roof. Shot last fall, released last winter, and conceived at a time when pandemic cinema still felt like something of a morbid novelty, Doug Liman’s semi-insufferable “Locked Down” was a reasonably lighthearted romp (considering the circumstances) that started with a sense of claustrophobic imprisonment and ended with its once-estranged love birds stealing back their freedom — along with a giant diamond from Harrods.
Filmed in April and May of 2021, Stephen Daldry’s “Together” is naturally focused on the next step of our collective grieving process. While somehow even more obnoxious than any previous movies about the impact of COVID on miserable bourgeoisie types with large home gardens, this stagey two-hander can be cathartic for its white-hot rage at how we got here. If only the film were swept away by its agit-prop undercurrents, and not so focused on repairing the toxic relationship between two nattering people who probably should’ve “Phantom Thread”-ed each other to death when they had the chance.
About that: One of the first things we learn about He (James McAvoy) and She (Sharon Horgan) — or one of the first things they tell us about themselves, I should say, as most of the movie’s dialogue is directed into the camera as if we’re stuck in some hellish kind of first-person simulator for couples therapists in training — is that they once survived an incident in which they may or may not have deliberately poisoned each other with mushrooms out of spite. Alas, they have still yet to reach the “kiss me, my girl, before I’m sick” part of the relationship; these are miserable people who openly admit they would’ve broken up years ago if not for the responsibility they feel towards their 10-year-old son.
“I hate your face,” He tells his partner with the sneering matter-of-factness of someone who spilled coffee on their shirt and knows there’s nothing they can do to prevent a stain. She responds by telling him that He reminds her of colorectal cancer. Needless to say, these characters would probably give you a headache even if Dennis Kelly’s script didn’t have them jackhammering through the fourth wall from start to finish, and “Together” would be unbearably torturous if Horgan and McAvoy weren’t both so good at sneaking vespers of love inside volcanic eruptions of loathing.
Horgan perfected that art over four seasons of “Catastrophe,” but McAvoy — no stranger to sneering characters who take a certain pride in their ugliest parts — is saddled with the more oppressive role here. He is nothing less than a nightmare, and that’s true even before he decides to adopt a pandemic man bun (that McAvoy pulls it off so well only makes us hate the character even more). Both He and She are high-strung and caustic in a way that convinces you they could never be with anyone else, but He’s the id to his partner’s super-ego.
A conservative who introduces himself with a prickish story about yelling at some poor grocery store clerk because she wouldn’t sell him potentially infected aubergines, He’s more vituperative Daily Mail columnist than frustrated dad, and his Randian worldview rubs against his bleeding-heart liberal of a better half, who works at a charity and wouldn’t dream of taking the vaccine before every first responder on Earth got their shot. The James Carville/Mary Matalin vibes are strong with these two, and they jab each other with so many political talking points that you half expect an MSNBC host to show up and play moderator. Or you would if not for the long-take theatricality of Daldry’s direction, which suggests a discomfiting night of pandemic theater more than anything else (most scenes are set in and around the couple’s sun-dappled kitchen, to which Daldry adds a degree of cinematic dimension through soft focus and hard choreography).
It’s hard to imagine how these two might be able to make things work, and that doesn’t change once the script forces them to do just that. The growing affection they find for each other only makes sense as a response to the growing apathy they see in the rest of the world as 2020 slurs into 2021 and “Together” marks the passage of time by keeping track of the UK’s COVID bodycount. She delivers a heart-piercing monologue about watching her mother die over FaceTime (Horgan sells the reality of a script that opts for broad recognition over bitter specificity), and He begins to rage at how the people who run his country allowed this to happen.
His evolution from Leaver to “grocery store workers are heroes” is as easy to track as it is hard to believe, though McAvoy’s trembling conviction allows you to envision the promised lands of empathy — “the love that exists beyond hate” — even if his character takes a few too many shortcuts on his way there. But if the He said/She said of it all is DOA, “Together” leaves a mark whenever it foregoes individual self-improvements in favor of mutual hostilities; whenever it ignores the aloe balm of healing in favor of exploring how white-hot anger might force people to address the burn wounds that it leaves behind.
It’s telling that the film’s most powerful moment is also the one that most explicitly ditches the dramatic pretense in order to embrace a more direct form of address, as He and She co-stage a rueful speech — complete with black box theater blocking — about the number of people who died because of UK’s bungled response to the COVID response. “Together” may not be the best pandemic movie about a poison-tongued couple stuck in lockdown together, but it’s the first to recognize that rage is a necessary part of grieving what the pandemic has taken from us.
Bleecker Street will release “Together” in theaters nationwide on Friday, August 27.
As new movies open in theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic, IndieWire will continue to review them whenever possible. We encourage readers to follow the safety precautions provided by CDC and health authorities. Additionally, our coverage will provide alternative viewing options whenever they are available.