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Tom Cullen is the actor who had his breakthrough in Andrew Haigh’s contemporary romantic drama Weekend in 2011; now he makes an interesting and worthwhile debut as writer-director with Pink Wall, an intimate, scenes-from-a-relationship movie. We see various moments from various years in the time that a certain troubled couple are together, and the reshuffling of the narrative order somehow accentuates the poignant entropy as things fall apart.
Jay Duplass plays Leon, an amiable, unambitious American guy in London with vague plans to become a photographer, but who likes hanging out in his flat cooking, listening to music and smoking weed, generally savouring the solo mood of directionless creativity and fun. (There’s a moment when, slightly loopy from solitude, he self-satirically calls out “Lovely balloons!” at something he’s seen out of the window and bursts out laughing. I did, too.)
Leon falls in love with Jenna, who is exactly wrong for him or maybe exactly right. She is a formidably smart, professionally driven TV producer played by Tatiana Maslany, renowned for her bravura multi-personality performance in the BBC America sci-fi thriller Orphan Black, and with whom Cullen acted in a comparable film from 2016 called The Other Half. Jenna might herself have feelings for her best female friend that she has never entirely dealt with, and which get buried by the reality of this new heterosexual situation with Leon.
Cullen shows that their entire relationship might stem from Jenna’s unexpressed gratitude for the piercingly important insight that Leon had into Jenna at the very beginning of their life together when they were just living a studenty existence, with no idea of the future. Leon tells Jenna that with her fierce focus and talent for organising people and making things happen, she should be a producer. And he is right. Inevitably, her career takes off, but he is becalmed, and issues about sexuality, monogamy and children become more difficult and painful.
Perhaps the biggest moment of the film comes at the very beginning when, some way into their relationship, Leon and Jenna go out for a pub lunch with her mum and brother – the conversation is barrelling along pretty nicely and then takes a sudden, unexpected left turn. Duplass shows how Leon has been taken aback by something said and Maslany turns her character’s behaviour on a sixpence from cordiality to something very different.
The faultline has been laid open for us. And the rest of the scene plays out in a break-up/make-up structure that is confidently presented by Maslany and Duplass but repeats elsewhere in the film, and is indicative of something slightly actor-ish about the drama.
That isn’t to say there aren’t many great touches. I loved Leon and Jenna’s relationship opening up to the ecstatic accompaniment of the Meters’ song Cissy Strut and Leon’s spacey interpretation of the music. And cinematographer Bobby Shore has an interesting closeup on Maslany in a party scene when Leon is regaling everyone with a bizarre anecdote about when he was a kid and was trying to look at his own anus in the bathroom with the help of a mirror and his dad walked in on him.
Leon plays it as an outrageously and obviously funny story, but the shot of Jenna’s fractionally uncertain smile tells us something more complicated. Has she heard that anecdote before? Does she entirely like the performative side of Leon here? Has she, in fact, picked up on something that Leon doesn’t entirely realise: that this anecdote is part of a carefully curated and edited story about his relationship with his father, which was actually very unhappy?
And so the drama zigzags back and forth along the timeline, culminating in a powerful exchange taking place on an outdoor hike. With some self-consciousness, Leon makes what he considers to be a lovely, relationship-saving gesture, intended to bring about what he (and we, the audience) might assume is the imminent happy ending. But that is not how it pans out, and I admired how Cullen tries to absorb the uncinematic messiness of real life.
Pink Wall can be a bit contrived at times, with situations that have been rather effortfully created. But there are strong, forthright performances from Maslany and Duplass as the lovers who were never meant to be.
• Pink Wall is released in the UK on 13 December.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Pink Wall review – time-hopping down romance’s rocky road | Peter Bradshaw’s film of the week | Film