When Hollywood shut its doors in March 2020, people reacted in various ways. Some took advantage of the chance to take a break and others tearfully sung a few bars of John Lennon's Imagine into their smartphone camera. For filmmaker Sam Levinson – creator of the TV show Euphoria – and his leading lady Zendaya, though, their response was to channel their energies into a creative project which they could get off the ground and produce safely, even with a pandemic raging across the world. The result is the meticulous monochrome drama Malcolm & Marie – a movie that approaches relationships with an oil and water combination of melodrama and maturity. Somehow, it proves to be the perfect mixture.
The film opens with the titular couple, played by Zendaya and Tenet star John David Washington, as they arrive at a swanky, secluded home. Malcolm is a filmmaker and his new movie has premiered to a rapturous response, with the assembled throng of mostly white critics comparing him to Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins and John Singleton. Levinson positions the camera outside of the building, forcing the audience to watch Malcolm's joy from a distance – as if we're not getting the whole picture.
And so it proves, as Zendaya's glamorous Marie begins to unpick the events of the evening. Levinson brings the camera from outdoors right into the heart of what becomes a maelstrom of buried feelings, passive-aggressiveness and aggressive-aggressiveness. The first hints that something is wrong come as Marie smokes in a doorway while Malcolm swaggers and speechifies about his movie, with Zendaya's deadpan delivery wielded like a scalpel to puncture Washington's grandiose, theatrical pontification.
As a result of COVID precautions, the movie is a chamber piece in the strictest sense of that phrase, never leaving the confines of this clinical super-home – a dwelling laid on for the couple by the production company behind Malcolm's film. Marcell Rév's handsome, stylish cinematography puts a shine on every surface as the suffocating glamour of their surroundings clashes with the very real struggles of this couple, battling against the power dynamic of the relationship and the gap in privilege between the middle class Malcolm and the more troubled Marie.
Both performances are fantastic, delivering Levinson's exquisitely calibrated dialogue with aplomb and affection. Washington's is the bigger performance, with Malcolm prone to yelling and gesticulating – veins popping across his forehead. He's a land mine, spewing spittle and invective far and wide, while Marie is a scalpel. Zendaya effortlessly controls her performance, ensuring Marie never becomes the cliché of a hysterical woman scorned. Her calmness is disarming and deadly, with her most devastating lines delivered with a detached tone and a forced, sarcastic grin. She almost always has the upper hand, and Malcolm hates that. This makes the rare scenes in which he breaks through her confidence all the more devastating, with Zendaya allowing Marie's façade to falter and crack.
There's a real sophistication, too, in the way the movie traces the trajectory of the arguments. It isn't a 90-minute slanging match, but an evening which moves in waves – cresting to a seemingly insurmountable crescendo of hostility, only to settle back down into affection and warmth. This feels real in a way that allows the movie to break free of its rather stagey conceit, assisted by the fact Levinson and Rév know exactly when to allow the camera to glide and when to hold it still, modulated by Labrinth's understated score.
Levinson is mostly able to steer clear of pretension, though the movie does threaten to swallow itself when Washington is handed lengthy speeches about cinema as an art form. While it's a joy to watch him angrily fisk an early review of his movie, these scenes are allowed to expand into bloated and repetitive arenas. Were it not for Washington's movie star charisma and the relish in his delivery, it'd be easy to lose sight of what it is that makes this film work as well as it does.
Lockdown cinema has, it's fair to say, not delivered much in the way of high-quality material as yet. Thankfully, Malcolm & Marie changes that with a sophisticated and slick tale of a relationship in turmoil, aided by two young performers operating at the peak of their considerable powers.