In addition to–and perhaps because of–its savage death toll and economic devastation, COVID-19 also provoked an axis-shifting temblor of mass introspection. You could call it the Great Reassessment: The stillness of a pandemic lockdown quickly forced millions and billions to take a long, hard look at their jobs, friendships, and marriages and sort through what was really worth keeping. As a result of these months and years of difficult reflection, the world that eventually crawls out from under the virus will look entirely different than the one that came before. Like the greenery that sprouts from the ruins of a forest fire, our socio-cultural landscape is about to be permanently altered.
Together examines such a painful, meditative odyssey, already in progress. A middle-aged couple (James McAvoy and Sharon Hogan), plunk in the middle of the first COVID lockdown, uses their isolation to air old grievances and get a better handle on how they really feel about each other. As the film opens, they exchange withering put-downs and shout their respective cases directly to the audience: He says that she’s a pseudo-progressive virtue signaler who’s far more concerned about looking decent than actually being decent. She counters that he’s an insular, pretentious pig who uses conservative clichés to cover his racist, self-centered worldview. The conversation abruptly ends when she compares him to diarrhea in a pint glass.
This long, unbroken scene sets to the stage for most of Together: He and she–they’re never named–spill their guts to the camera, endowing us with the status of either cringing houseguests or passive couples therapists. They often engage in flowery diatribes of how much they hate each other, a clear sign that real love must still be present. Occasionally, the fourth wall will go back up, and the couple will genuinely work out their issues with each other.
It’s at these points that the movie hits hardest. McAvoy and Horgan are gifted, natural actors, and such scenes truly showcase their skill, along with Together‘s true emotional power: It feels almost too real when the couple loses a loved one to COVID. She gets fifteen minutes to deck out in PPE gear and say goodbye, then spends most of that precious time not knowing what to say. When she comes home, he’s at a total loss for words. The true sorrow of this moment lies in just how ubiquitous it really is. Just about everybody now knows someone who’s died in such a terrible, lonely way.
Other vignettes don’t score quite the same impact. Horgan has a long monologue that covers the ignorance and inertia of the British response to the pandemic. In those early days, the disease ran rampant through nursing homes, and nothing was done. I won’t deny the truth or power of her message, but we’re also twenty months into this thing. Anyone who could’ve gleaned anything useful out of such a sermon would’ve already done so. At this point, it just feels like Horgan is delivering a sobering jeremiad for the already-converted.
Ask any screenwriting professor, and they’ll tell you that breaking the fourth wall is risky proposition. Unless you’re dealing with Zack Morris or Deadpool, nobody wants to be pulled out of the story for a deluge of expositional dialogue, delivered awkwardly into the camera. The charm of such a gimmick ebbs and flows within Together. McAvoy and Horgan are so good, quite a few of these moments work because of their undeniable relatability. Unfortunately, even with their skill, the whole experience grows a little wearying.
Thankfully, somewhere in the third act, director Stephen Daldry and writer Dennis Kelly pull the film out of its own way. The McAvoy and Horgan characters finally push their chips to the middle of the table, and the two actors playing them shine brightest. Together becomes a proper two-hander (despite the quiet background presence of their ten-year-old son, played by Samuel Logan), and delivers on some of its enormous well of potential.
I’m stuck on whether or not to recommend this film. Pieces of it work extraordinarily well. Everyone has felt a little of the despondency, the outrage, and fragile optimism that this couple lives over the course of the pandemic. You’ll relate to at least something about Together. At the same time, some people might find its incessant cleverness to be an unavoidable distraction. For all its acting prowess, this highly theatrical film never stops feeling written. With that said, Together will likely give you a lot to think about, and that alone might be a reason to give it a look.
87 minutes. R.