If Beale Street Could Talk Review
James Baldwin’s prose on the big screen: stunning statement cinema from Oscar winner Barry Jenkins
Moonlight was one of 2016’s most stunning films, so director Barry Jenkins’ feature film follow up was always going to be aesthetically pleasing. As it happens, If Beale Street Could Talk is beautiful, profound, intelligent, emotional and touching – truly one of the most moving films of the year so far.Based on James Baldwin’s novel of the same name, Beale Street revolves around a young couple in early 1974 New York. Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) are lifelong friends who grow up and fall in love.
Their blissful family life is shattered when Fonny is set up by a racist police officer (Ed Skrein) and framed for a rape he didn’t commit. Tish and their families set out to prove the truth, led magnificently by Tish’s mother Sharon (a superlative Regina King) and supported by Fonny’s friend Daniel (a phenomenal Brian Tyree Henry).
Breathtakingly beautiful and eye-wateringly profound, this is serious cinema that delights the eyes, engages the brain and tugs at the heart
James Laxton’s cinematography renders Beale Street more of an artwork than a mainstream cinema release. In fact, all members of the crew are firing on all cylinders, with a hauntingly surprising jazz score by Nicholas Britell and perfectly toned costumes by Caroline Eselin. Breathtakingly beautiful and eye-wateringly profound, this is serious cinema that delights the eyes, engages the brain and tugs at the heart.
Crucially, this is a bit of thinking cinema. It’s slow-paced, deliberate and symbolic in a way that offers more intellectual stimulus than the standard visual thrills of a flashy blockbuster chock full of digital effects and fiery explosions. It’s clear from the outset that Jenkins set out to make a ‘serious’ film, and the rich colour palette, sombre tone and political subject matter mean this isn’t light-hearted watching and demands serious consuming. There are times where the tone of the film does feel jarring – sometimes appropriately, given the subject matter – and the viewer is at risk of being jolted from the lyrical, smooth world created by the film’s look; the score, swooping and serene, does a great job of glossing over these moments.
Moonlight’s uniqueness and innovation aren’t replicated here, but that’s perhaps a strength of this film, and speaks volumes of its faithfulness in adaptation. The film is doggedly heavy, and doesn’t offer much in the way of light relief – though that’s really not what this is about.
Those who are familiar with Baldwin’s work will find it perfectly, uncannily, faithfully represented here. Jenkins’s screenplay mimics the late writer’s rich vocabulary through shot selection and a camera that moves like a character itself. We’re taken up close to Tish and Fonny, and given what almost seems like an intrusive look into their relationship and the politics that govern it. There’s a superb sense of claustrophobia delivered by the camerawork and vivid use of colour; frequent close-ups amplify the pitch-perfect performances from Layne and James, making Fonny and Tish feel like real historic people rather than fictional characters.
While it’s undoubtedly not for everyone, Beale Street is a must-watch for cinephiles, historians and fans of art in any form
The film works on a visual level, and a script that is in danger of being weighed down by its own importance is instead buoyed by a series of exemplary performances – from the whole cast, but Layne, King and Tyree Henry in particular – and the memorable score. While it’s undoubtedly not for everyone, Beale Street is a must-watch for cinephiles, historians and fans of art in any form.
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