Thursday 2 July 2020

Two women: "Lynn + Lucy"

The ultra-composed Lynn + Lucy trains its camera on a sight that hasn't often been seen in British cinema these past few years: authentic working-class life. It's raffles in chain pubs, Lizzie Cundy makeovers, nightclub singalongs to Paris Hilton's "Stars Are Blind"; it's overflowing ashtrays, poky rooms separated by too-thin walls, a lack of protection and safety nets, a sense of disaster or tragedy waiting to happen. Crucially, writer-director Fyzal Boulifa meets all of the above foursquare, on the level, without sneering or condescension. (One sign we're in sure hands: Boulifa is, of course, wholly correct about reviving "Stars Are Blind", Ms. Hilton's sole contribution to the common good.) We're here to meet two women who sorely need one another - who add up, as per that graffito-title - but who will be sundered before our eyes. They're schoolfriends, transitioning from their twenties to their thirties, reaching the point where youthful freedoms typically give way to greater responsibility. Both have children and varyingly useless boyfriends (we understand their options haven't been great), but Lynn (Roxanne Scrimshaw) has settled into maternity, and putting another's needs before her own, while Lucy (Nichola Burley) continues to drink + party + seek out whatever cheap thrills come her way. Then something happens, something statistics show is likelier to happen on housing estates than in Hampstead and Highgate, something that splits the girls' community and begins to test their friendship. Another of the thousand and one cracks in the framework of Broken Britain.

Doing that rupture full dramatic justice demands a formidable directorial control - the control escapees from actual housing estates often adopt in wider society by way of a survival mechanism. It seems essential that Boulifa, who arrives here from an acclaimed run of short films, does his own editing; you can feel him weighing his ingredients, attempting to measure out enough grit and hardship that his vision stays credible, yet not so much that the film becomes depressing or alienating. He pours it all into a tight 4:3 frame that represents either a manageable canvas for a first-time feature director, further illustration of his characters' limited horizons, a throwback to the Play for Today era (arguably the last time British filmmakers were encouraged to pay such sustained and empathetic attention to the lower classes), or all of the above simultaneously. Either way, it's soon clear that Boulifa has a strong sense of how to fill that space. Clock the shot of a bowl of strawberry ice cream that stands in for some horribly scrambled feelings; marvel at the reveal of the cursewords sprayed on Lucy's home and car, a flourish that might have been claimed as a sight gag in happier circumstances. If nothing else, this filmmaker knows he can always fall back on close-ups of the kind of faces our national cinema has so rarely troubled to observe.

It's encouraging to watch Burley - a skilled performer whose career has undeniably suffered for her absence of exportable poshness, surface glamour - being handed the opportunity to negotiate a properly complex characterisation: a young woman who appears both damaged and capable of the very worst damage. Scrimshaw, taut and nervy, makes for an even more fascinating study, skin stretched too thin over some formidably hard edges. A less open-minded director might have cast them in one another's roles - to make the more established Burley the sensible one, and Scrimshaw the centre of the narrative's low-level controversy. The configuration Boulifa has settled on speaks to the freshness he brings to this milieu, and a desire to upend viewer prejudices and presumptions. The girls' trajectory makes for a genuinely fraught experience, involving more than one quiet, awful, everyday tragedy, and a good deal of barely suppressed, close-to-the-surface pain (witness: recent cinema's most agonising tattoo removal) of the kind the proletariat are meant to throw a Keep Calm and Carry On teatowel over. (As if it were a chip pan fire.) Lynn + Lucy isn't a rampagingly political work - there's no telltale insert of a TV or radio blaring Brexit news - but it does gesture towards the impossibility of solidarity in this formerly United Kingdom, how British social mobility now more often than not entails trampling somebody else into the ground. I wasn't 100% sold on Boulifa's open door of an ending, but the unease he fosters for ninety minutes here lingers far beyond the closing credits.

Lynn + Lucy is now streaming via Amazon Prime and the BFI Player.

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