By Caryn James22nd January 2021Zendaya and John David Washington both deserve awards buzz for their "dynamic, sensitive performances" in this intense two-character film which keeps the audience off-guard.O

On one long night in the relationship of a film director and his girlfriend, John David Washington and Zendaya talk, shout, argue, insult, attack, counter-attack, kiss, make-up, then argue all over again. The ghosts of many other bad-relationship dramas hover over Malcolm & Marie, including Scenes From a Marriage, Marriage Story and especially Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, whose black-and-white look and one-night time frame are echoed in this new film. But writer and director Sam Levinson, who also created the audacious and enthralling HBO series Euphoria, gives the familiar story a makeover with dynamic, sensitive performances from its hugely talented stars, and a story that broadens to include race and the new Hollywood. The two-character film was devised and made during the pandemic, but needs no special pleading for its circumstances. Levinson turns his small-scale approach into an asset that only enhances the film’s intensity.

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Fresh off the triumph of Malcolm’s movie premiere, the couple return to their spacious rented house at 01:00 and create stark first impressions for the viewer. She looks glam in a silvery dress, but dour as she slams around the kitchen making mac and cheese for him. He is wired, excited to be acclaimed as the hottest new director in town, and doesn’t even notice that she’s annoyed. He seems like the most self-absorbed person on Earth and she seems like the pettiest, whining because he failed to thank her during his speech at the premiere. But these early impressions give way to others as the characters reveal more about her past and the real reasons for her anger, and about his genuine devotion to her.

Levinson uses more than dialogue to keep the action moving

Throughout the psychological games and emotional twists and turns, Zendaya and Washington keep the audience as off-guard as the characters do each other. Marie seems on target when she calls Malcolm out as a narcissist. And when she says he’s a mediocre director, he is perfectly justified in asking, “Were you just trying to be mean?” Zendaya, who recently won an Emmy for brilliantly portraying a drug-addicted teen in Euphoria, is just as nuanced here, capturing the defensiveness and sadness behind Marie’s outbursts. Once an aspiring actress, she now has no career of her own, a situation with a complicated explanation. As Marie’s defences break down, her look becomes simpler too: she takes off her makeup, and appears with wet hair in cotton underwear and a kimono.

Early screenings of the film immediately started awards buzz for Zendaya, but the same should be true for Washington, who reveals just enough about Malcolm at exactly the right times. Marie is the one who plays more tricks and games through the night, but Malcolm turns out to be unexpectedly insightful, not about himself but about her. Washington is always a strong presence on screen. To see how clever an actor he is, take a look at Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman; you wouldn’t necessarily spot it in Tenet, where he is burdened with Christopher Nolan’s clunky dialogue. Here he has several explosive scenes, some directed at Marie, others about being a black director in Hollywood. “Not everything I do is political because I’m black,” he says when they first get home, mocking the sycophantic praise with a racial slant he has heard from a reviewer he calls “the white lady from the LA Times”. Later, when her positive review of his film lands, he rages against it, erupting with true and witty lines that insist she has misunderstood everything he was trying to do in his story about a black woman getting clean of drugs. He is especially incensed at a line that says he “brilliantly subverts the white-saviour trope”. You don’t have to be immersed in film criticism to howl with laughter at how perfectly Levinson and Washington nail the reviewer’s pretentious tone and blinkered perspective, but it helps.

A film this alive deserves a fresher ending

Levinson uses more than dialogue to keep the action moving. A one-location film could easily have felt claustrophobic or static, but Malcolm & Marie never does. The camera roams through the rooms, as we see the characters coming down a hallway, stepping onto the patio or moving from the kitchen to the living area or bedroom. The film was shot in a house full of gleaming windows, surrounded by woods, where the black-and-white shadows add a slightly ominous tone.

A film this alive deserves a fresher ending, instead of the bland, clich├ęd final sequence it fumbles into. Marie has a monologue about what she wanted Malcolm to thank her for, a list that lands as banal rather than genuine or moving. Like the song that plays over the end credits, Outkast’s Liberation, with the lyrics, “There’s a fine line between love and hate”, that last speech is too on the nose, its observations too shallow for this vibrant, perceptive film.