Animals review: two friends’ clash of millennial hedonism and romantic yearning

Two party-loving best friends, played by Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat, face the end of the music in Sophie Hyde’s naturalistic and affectionate adaptation of Emma Jane Unsworth’s novel.

Kate Stables
Updated:

from our August 2019 issue

Holliday Grainger as Laura and Alia Shawkat as Tyler in Animals

Holliday Grainger as Laura and Alia Shawkat as Tyler in Animals

“Tell me about the first time we met,” hungover Laura demands sweetly of her flatmate Tyler, the female best friend with whom she’s shared a bed, private jokes and wild drink-and-drug-fuelled nights for a decade. Theirs is a platonic romance, their principled frivolity (they live for partying, and scorn bougie careerism) the very model of millennial hedonism. But as Sophie Hyde’s raucous, rueful adaptation of Emma Jane Unsworth’s hit novel opens, their endless debauch has palled, and Laura’s book has stalled (“What’s your novel about?” – “About ten pages”). So when Laura (Holliday Grainger) falls hard for Fra Fee’s diligent, ambitious pianist Jim, the film’s cheerful decadence gives way to a sharp love triangle, as Laura pinballs indecisively between her party pact with Tyler (Alia Shawkat) and the seductive safety of a family-pleasing engagement.

The pains of swapping your BFF for marriage (or losing her to it) have been examined repeatedly on film, thoughtfully in Girl Friends (1978), Walking and Talking (1996) and Frances Ha (2012), and exuberantly in Bridesmaids (2011). But Animals is a fresh, wistful, Withnail-esque portrait of the competing charms of up-for-it freedom and a hot but clear-headed romance. Its most winning feature is its girl’s-eye view, visually immersing you in Laura’s tequila-necking, sticky-floored nights out, as well as the chilly self-hatred of wasted, hungover days.

Hyde’s camera pulses with Laura’s desire for Jim, flashbacks to their sweaty, fleshy couplings springing into her head as he plays a pub piano. It’s a film of fierce female appetites – Tyler’s hunger for attention, Laura’s longing for literary success, their shared thirst for good times – rather than coy yearnings.

Shawkat, Grainger

Shawkat, Grainger

The two leads create a fierce, electric intimacy together, Shawkat’s quipping Tyler full of thrift-shop glamour, her vintage costuming (fine work from Renate Henschke) a vampish mix of Sally Bowles and Marc Bolan. But the thin-skinned Laura is Grainger’s best work to date, her darting-eyed ambivalence spinning the film like a top. Hyde’s watchful direction (52 Tuesdays showed off her ability to get under a character’s skin) adopts Laura’s subjectivity, creating a kind of dreamy naturalism that rolls up wary glances (check out how it registers the family’s sonar signals at a tense engagement meal) with the blue-red light of dance-floor euphoria.

Resonant direction helps to deepen scriptwriter Unsworth’s wordy adaptation of her novel, its dialogue occasionally arch (“Girls are tied to beds for two reasons, sex and exorcisms. Which was it?”) or gilded with effortful aperçus. The story’s snapshot-series structure is light and unforced, however, with Hyde’s sensitive sequences and Grainger’s delicate playing toning down the book’s broad comedy. She and Shawkat are so attuned to one another that Jim becomes a tad wan and worthy beside the gutter glitter of their revelries, but the film retains its balance.

Refreshingly, there’s no hint of cautionary tale about the girls’ wild nights, though when Laura falls for a pretentious poet, the film’s verdict is tart, both on his hipster literary salon and his ineptly experimental sexual acts. Throwing a lot of Yeats quotes and self-conscious ‘craic’ into the mix does underline, however, that the film has rehomed the story from Manchester to Dublin. Grainger’s soft Irish accent can’t hide the slightly transplanted feel of the proceedings. Nonetheless, it’s an absorbing, affectionate portrait of emerging adulthood, and the exasperating and unavoidable choice between (Yeats again) “Perfection of the life, or of the work”.

 

  • Sight & Sound: the August 2019 issue

    Sight & Sound: the August 2019 issue

    British cinema special: Blinded by the Light, The Souvenir, multicultural British heritage cinema, new British talents and the future of the...

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