Film

'If Beale Street Could Talk' review – unfairly eclipsed by 'Moonlight'

It missed the Oscar buzz, but Simon Brew says this triumph of quiet filmmaking by 'Moonlight' writer/director Barry Jenkins will get you in the end

The last time writer/director Barry Jenkins brought us one of his films, he performed that rarest of tricks: turning a $1.5m budget into an excellent drama, a box office hit, multiple Oscars, and a movie that gave the Academy Awards the most dramatic twist finale in its history.

Most crucially of all, the film in question – Moonlight – has continued to resonate, and rightly so.

Yet If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins’ new release, hasn’t quite enjoyed the same level of Academy love. Shut out of the bulk of major Oscar categories, it’s easy to conclude that the film is more conventional, just a little less ambitious, and doesn’t feel as groundbreaking. For me? I’d just argue that it’s quieter. It’s a slow, patient diligent piece of cinema that’s no less impactful. It just gets you slowly.

The basics, then. The film is adapted by Jenkins from the source novel by James Baldwin (whose text he directly quotes in a text card at the start). At heart, it’s the tale of a romance between a young black couple, KiKi Layne’s Tish and Stephan James’ Fonny (the pair sharing terrific chemistry on screen). When we meet them, they’re at the start of what should be their time together. Tish is pregnant, but we quickly learn that Fonny is behind bars and accused of rape, with more details on what’s led the pair to this point revealed throughout the film.

It’s hard to think of a character in the movie who’s short-changed

Jenkins allows that story to build slowly, and not always chronologically. The film thus takes us back and forth to moments in time, as we come to understand what’s brought the characters to where they are. It’s a quality ensemble that’s built around Layne and James, too, and it’s hard to think of a character in the movie who’s short-changed.

Perhaps if there’s a standout, that honour goes to the superb Regina King. King did get Oscar recognition for her performance as Tish’s mother, and deservedly so. Just to zero in on her character, she portrays a woman both enriched with love and torn apart by the unfairness of her future son-in-law’s imprisonment – but also one who doesn’t always react predictably to moments we’ve regularly seen go elsewhere on screen. Second-guess the movie at your peril.

There’s one particular standout scene that brings both sides of the young couple’s family together. It’s fascinating to watch. Initially played lightly, Jenkins deftly moves the tone and power mechanics as events play out, adding significant strokes to one particular character who, on the surface, comes across as highly likeable.

Beautifully shot by James Laxton, If Beale Street Could Talk radiates a warmth and tenderness that sometimes – very effectively – jars with what’s narratively happening on screen. If there’s a further hidden hero in the movie, it’s casting director Cindy Tolan. You’ll have to look hard this year to find an ensemble who work together this well, with excellent turns from performers such as Colman Domingo, Michael Beach and Ed Skrein.

It’s some piece of work, this. The deliberate pace won’t appeal to all, and there’s certainly a debate as to whether there’s quite enough narrative to cover the full two-hour running time. Against that, it’s a thoroughly absorbing, challenging piece of cinema, with so many quiet standouts that perhaps it’s understandable the Academy didn’t quite know which way to look.

Read our interview with If Beale Street Could Talk star Stephen James here

National Vendor Week 2024

A celebration of people who are working their way out of poverty.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Behind Oscar-tipped doc Four Daughters: A story of radicalisation, family and loss
Sisters Tayssir and Eya, two of the subjects of the new film Four Daughters
Film

Behind Oscar-tipped doc Four Daughters: A story of radicalisation, family and loss

Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley: 'Why the hell are we still judging someone on how they look?'
Film

Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley: 'Why the hell are we still judging someone on how they look?'

Dune: Part Two review – deluxe space opera with a discreet safety net
TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET as Paul Atreides and ZENDAYA as Chani in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE: PART TWO,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Film

Dune: Part Two review – deluxe space opera with a discreet safety net

Photojournalist Lanre Fehintola didn't just record life on the edge – he became the story
Film

Photojournalist Lanre Fehintola didn't just record life on the edge – he became the story

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Here's when UK households to start receiving last cost of living payments
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Here's when UK households to start receiving last cost of living payments

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know