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Together review: Starry lockdown two-hander feels better suited to stage than screen

·4-min read
 (BBC / Arty Films Ltd / Peter Mountain)
(BBC / Arty Films Ltd / Peter Mountain)

As the every-couple at the centre of this one-off BBC film unpack their first big lockdown shop (complete with enough loo roll to survive the apocalypse), they set about analysing the lacklustre state of their relationship in forensic detail, gleefully baiting each other with examples of their respective personality defects like it’s a blood sport.

He (played by James McAvoy - neither character has a name) thinks she (Sharon Horgan) is a sanctimonious bleeding heart liberal. She is deeply suspicious of his Tory tendencies and can’t stand the way he eats. Neither of them has any qualms about breaking the fourth wall to unleash this flood of grudges onto the viewer. It’s like meeting a couple at a party only to be expected to act as a reluctant referee when they slide into a back and forth volley of performative resentment.

How, they ask us, will they manage to survive the lockdown cooped up at home when their relationship is contingent on them spending as little time with each other as possible? The line between love and hate has never been thinner. Their salvo of insults gives way to a temporary ceasefire, though, when the conversation turns to her elderly mum who lives alone, assisted by carers three times a day. Her sister eventually finds mum a space at a care home, and the dramatic irony couldn’t be heavier when Horgan turns to the camera to ask: “She’ll be safe there, right?”

McAvoy and Horgan play a couple forced to reassess their relationship in lockdown (BBC / Arty Films Ltd / Peter Mountain)
McAvoy and Horgan play a couple forced to reassess their relationship in lockdown (BBC / Arty Films Ltd / Peter Mountain)

As they muddle through, the couple’s tolerance for one another apparently tied to the national mood, all the requisite signifiers of locked down life are present and correct. McAvoy grows a man bun and gives a monologue about how he’s really got into growing vegetables; homeschooling their son Arthur (Samuel Logan) is a drag; a conversation about the furlough scheme (he rescinds a load of emails firing staff at his “boutique computing consultancy” as soon as Rishi - first name only - announces it) becomes a flashpoint for their divergent politics.

As the months go by, subtitles note the number of Covid deaths and, later, the number of people vaccinated. The couple’s sharper appeals to camera often get weighed down with explanatory signposts, telling us that things happened “before the start of the lockdown” or “after they announced the official end of the lockdown.” It’s true to the way that we’ve started marking the passage of time around government briefings and the tightening of regulations, but makes dialogue feel cumbersome.

It’s almost impossible to dislike Horgan and McAvoy, performers who can inspire goodwill even when the characters they’re playing verge on the insufferable. Whether or not you can stand to relive three lockdowns with them, though, will depend upon your tolerance for timeliness, a quality that Together is always straining for.

Horgan gets the most powerful monologues (BBC / Arty Films Ltd / Peter Mountain)
Horgan gets the most powerful monologues (BBC / Arty Films Ltd / Peter Mountain)

The film, written by Dennis Kelly and directed by Stephen Daldry, is the latest in a feedback loop of scaled-down (and therefore Covid-friendly) cultural projects that have attempted to capture and process the last 18 months. At least no one mentions sourdough starters, and there are no fuzzy split-screen tributes to Zoom (there is, however, a spectacularly incongruous needle drop towards the end that threatens to mar the emotional pay-off).

The spikiness of McAvoy and Morgan’s back-and-forth (like the story of a disastrous make-or-break mushroom foraging trip they took earlier in the relationship) stops things getting too earnest, but Kelly’s monologues show his writing at its sharpest. Horgan gets two of the best. A speech delivered by her character upon returning from the hospital painfully captures the strange sense of disconnection that arises when you can’t grieve properly, when final goodbyes have to be mediated through a screen. Later, looking straight down the camera, she tells us she “can’t help thinking mum didn’t die… she was killed.”

These more stylised moments are when Together is most powerful, but the medium dampens their impact slightly. It’s hard not to feel like this project would have been more at home on the stage than the screen.

Stream Together on BBC iPlayer

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