Film review: Harlem-set love story If Beale Street Could Talk is achingly tender

Stephan James and KiKi Layne in If Beale Street Could Talk
Damon Smith

ON FEBRUARY 26 2017 writer-director Barry Jenkins unexpectedly found himself at the epicentre of one of the most memorable moments in Oscars history when Moonlight was crowned Best Picture shortly after La La Land was mistakenly awarded the top prize.

Both films were worthy recipients of the golden statuette but the brouhaha of Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway and a wrong envelope overshadowed Jenkins's moment of glory.

The Florida-born film-maker proves Moonlight was no fluke with his sublime adaptation of the novel penned by James Baldwin, which charts a love story against the turbulent backdrop of racial injustice in 1970s Harlem.

Masterfully constructed in fluid and visually arresting takes that make the heart swell, If Beale Street Could Talk conceals its devastating narrative blows behind impeccable production design and Nicholas Britell's swooning orchestral score.

Jenkins engineers one of the year's most unforgettable scenes in the living room of a cramped apartment, where two mothers trade withering verbal blows about an unplanned pregnancy.

"Who is going to be responsible for this baby?" snarls one matriarch.

"The father and the mother," retorts her fellow lioness, played with formidable intensity by Regina King, who should clear a space on her mantelpiece for an Academy Award.

The punctuation mark is a shocking act of violence that floors us with one of the characters.

Best friends Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James) fall in love and attempt to set up home together, only to find that most landlords won't rent an apartment to a black couple. On their way home, Tish endures unwelcome advances from another man and Fonny angrily intervenes.

A passing police officer, Bell (Ed Skrein), threatens to arrest Fonny but the owner of a nearby grocery store intervenes and vouches for the couple.

Soon after, a woman (Emily Rios) accuses Fonny of rape and officer Bell's damning testimony seals his fate. As Fonny awaits trial in prison, Tish confirms she is pregnant to her parents (King, Colman Domingo) and vows to prove her man's innocence.

If Beale Street Could Talk speaks clearly and eloquently about the resilience of the human spirit and the strength mothers derive from protecting their broods.

Layne and James are a handsome pairing and they catalyse molten screen chemistry in an artfully staged sex scene that culminates in him whispering "Just remember that I belong to you," as their naked bodies shudder together.

It's achingly tender but when Jenkins needs to floor us with raw emotion, he doesn't hold back. Nor would we want him to.

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (15, 119 mins) Drama/Romance. KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Ed Skrein, Emily Rios. Director: Barry Jenkins

Released: February 8 (UK & Ireland)

RATING: 9/10

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