If Beale Street Could Talk

Laurence Green reviews Barry Jenkins’ angry, assured and distinctive drama which asserts that even in a world of corruption and prejudice, love and digni…

Stephan James and KiKi Layne in If Beale Street Could Talk

A dreamy, sometimes heartbreaking story of love against impossible odds is how you could describe Barry (Moonlight) Jenkins's elegant, if rather slow moving, movie If Beale Street Could Talk (in cinemas from Feb 8), adapted from the novel of the same name by James Baldwin.

Tish Rivers and Fonny Hunt have known each other since childhood but only latterly discovered that the safe, easy familiarity between them has blossomed into a love so intoxicating it promises everlasting joy and happiness. But life is not destined to be so easy for a young black couple living in 1970s Harlem. Fonny is falsely accused of rape and an unjust judicial system refuses to acknowledge the impossibility of his having committed the crime. Struggling to come to terms with his incarceration, as well as the news that she is pregnant with their baby, Tish turns to her loving family for support and the struggle begins to get him exonerated.

This is only the second time a book by Baldwin has been adapted for the screen (Robert Guediguian directed a Marseilles set version of the story in 1998). In adapting Beale Street Jenkins creates an authentic and graceful film about black lives in America–the missing piece of cinema history long denied representation on the screen. And with cinematographer James Laxton (who also worked with Jenkins on Moonlight) and designer Mark Friedberg, he has crafted a ravishing picture of New York, against a backdrop of social change and political injustice. Indeed the lushness of the film's images interacts beautifully with the spoken text, capturing the poetry of Baldwin's language.

Newcomer Kiki Layne (who won a Golden Globe award for her performance and could well feature on Oscar night) provides the film's beating heart as Tish and we can really empathise with her when her life is thrown into disarray. Stephan James is quietly convincing as her devoted boyfriend Fonny and the chemistry between Layne and James is palpable–they exchange looks and tender touches and we really feel they are a couple deeply in love, torn apart by cruel circumstances. Strong support is provided by Regina King as Tish's mother, Colman Domingo as her father and Teyonah Parris as her sister, who will go to extraordinary lengths to help the young couple.

Further praise must be given to the searing, jazz-inflected bluesy score which manages to convey the mood of the piece and heightens its dramatic impetus.

This then is an angry, assured and distinctive drama which asserts that even in a world of corruption and prejudice, love and dignity can prevail.

If Beale Street Could Talk is released nationwide on Friday 8 February 2019.

Last modified: February 6, 2019

Written by 12:25 pm What's on