Wednesday 28 December 2022

On demand: "Nanny"

n eyecatching example of New Black Horror that scooped Sundance's Grand Jury Prize for Drama at the beginning of the year, Nanny details the growing tension felt by Aisha (Anna Diop), a Senegalese woman obliged in the course of her working days to care for the daughter of well-to-do New Yorkers (Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector) while checking in with her own son back in Africa via FaceTime. Inevitably, a large part of that tension derives from Aisha's status as an outsider in East Coast high society, and adjacent issues of money and class. The button-cute daughter (Rose Decker) presents as another of this desirable loftspace's elaborate furnishings: a delicate object, to be handled accordingly. Aisha herself falls subject to issues of ownership, dressed up in one of her employers' dresses (corset-tight though it is on her) for a social event, then paid off or not paid the agreed sum. And while her intelligence, empathy and sensitivity draw a compliment from the kid's ruggedly handsome, too-smooth father - "I can tell that you're not going to be with us very long, much as I'd like to keep you" - something about the phrasing is enough to set alarm bells ringing. Nevertheless, writer-director Nikyatu Jusu holds her nerve, and with it our attention. We spend Nanny's first half settling in, on the lookout for potential sources of peril, with only odd splashes of watery imagery - framed as Aisha's nightmares - to justify the horror tag. While we wait, we have time to notice a not inconsiderable achievement: that this may just be the most gorgeous looking movie to have been filed away on a streaming platform in the course of 2022.

Jusu and cinematographer Rina Yang go big on ambience, embedding the viewer in this suspiciously cosy environment; therein, they do much to correct that long and sorry history of films that have been blindly indifferent to the challenge of correctly lighting and filming Black skin, while seeding the ground with some idea of where the biggest threat is likely to come from. (Leading contenders: the distance between Aisha and her son, the dad's roving eye, a Babadook-like children's story about a trickster spider.) The eye for this milieu is matched by a strategist's mind for story. Jusu's guile is such that, by the halfway point, I still wasn't sure what would happen next; it even seemed possible she just wanted to put her audience in the fraught headspace of a working woman required to go behind enemy lines on a daily basis, that no further horror was required. Along the way, you spy the tyranny of influences looming over a young filmmaker stepping up to features this late in cinema history: at various points, you may wonder whether Nanny is going to turn out more Roman Polanski or Chantal Akerman, whether its abiding angel is good or bad. Yet if the third act has to battle through some shopworn horror imagery - traces of the film you expect Nanny to turn into - where it's going is somewhere fresh, distinctive and cheering. It is, finally, a Nikyatu Jusu film above and beyond all else - as well as proof producers Blumhouse can pull off something more refined and affecting than their usual popcorn-rattlers.

Nanny is now streaming via Prime Video.

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