Second Coming review: on motherhood and other miracles

Nadine Marshall’s pregnant mother keeps her body’s story inscrutable in Debbie Tucker Green’s beautifully judged paean to the inexplicable.

15 July 2020

By Lisa Mullen

Second Coming (2014)
Sight and Sound

Like Pieter Bruegel or Stanley Spencer, writer-director Debbie Tucker Green is interested in how moments of transcendence are knitted into the humdrum daily routines of life. For those painters, it was the fall of Icarus or the Resurrection that needed to be brought into urgent proximity to the everyday. In Tucker Green’s Second Coming it is conception and childbirth – everyday occurrences for humanity – that are revealed as mysterious and inexorable interventions into individual lives. And so we discover that an ordinary woman called Jackie (Nadine Marshall) is pregnant: a dubious miracle, since she cannot or will not explain how she conceived a child without having sex with her husband or anyone else.

Tracking the unwelcome pregnancy through its three trimesters, Tucker Green persists in withholding this one piece of information: every other detail of Jackie’s life is laid bare, but she will not say a word to her loving husband Mark (Idris Elba) or even her best friend Bernie (Sharlene Whyte) about the provenance of her unborn child. Is her silence a protest? A provocation? Some kind of mental illness?

Although the film’s title and some of its themes suggest a Christian interpretation, Tucker Green is determined to disallow any certainty about what exactly is going on: divine intervention is suggested, but it is just as plausible, for instance, that there is a psychological explanation for Jackie’s silence, that she is repressing an unthinkable memory. Certainly, she is not given the option of a visit by an angelic tutor who can walk her through the nitty-gritty of immaculate conception; instead, she gets hallucinations – visions, as she calls them – of being drenched by a deluge of water that pours into the private space of her bathroom, the one place where she is alone. It is enough, Tucker Green seems to say, to know that the inexplicable exists, and acts on our lives with relentless indifference. Don’t ask more.

Second Coming (2014)

This approach demands a lot from the audience: it is radically at odds with our insatiable hunger for the satisfying clunk of narrative closure, not just in fiction but in our own self-told stories. Yet as the film progresses, Jackie’s silence becomes essential: it is what the film is about. Scandalous, inconvenient or uncanny, pregnancy is one of the eternal plots, playing out in melodramas, sentimental comedies and horror films alike, but in most cases the woman is the active and voluble focus of discussion and debate. Female characters in this position are not supposed to be inscrutable: they are supposed to produce torrents of communication and emotional availability. For Jackie – though she is happy enough to banter with her husband and bitch at her sister – the incontrovertible, physical fact of her pregnancy must remain a discursive dead end.

Such total reticence contrasts with Tucker Green’s impressive talent for punchy, eloquent dialogue. She knows how to use the terse abbreviations of Afro-Caribbean London slang to maximum effect: in one brief exchange between Jackie and Mark, as she is leaving for work, he answers her brusque “I’m gone” with a simple “From time”: perfectly summing up her strained withdrawal, and his sorrow and resentment, in four economical syllables.

This spare style of writing is essential to the film’s deft manipulation of depth and surface: focused tightly on the minutiae of Jackie’s life – cooking, eating, working, sleeping – Tucker Green shows how these details resonate with emotional vibrations far below the surface, so that when we see slight variations in Jackie’s routines we can read in them her state of mind.

Second Coming (2014)
Stephen Cummiskey 2013

With words deployed so sparingly, much is conveyed visually: in the hands of director of photography Ula Pontikos, the camera is an intimate and at times intrusive presence, especially in the cluttered interiors of Jackie and Mark’s house, where much of the action takes place. Its gaze can be almost unbearably insistent; when it fixes on their shy and dreamy son JJ (Kai Francis-Lewis) as he is forced to witness his father – out of shot – furiously haranguing Jackie for several minutes, the audience feels skewered along with him.

The film’s ability to carry off such subtlety depends very much on the quality of its actors, and Tucker Green has certainly hit gold with her cast. Marshall – who has worked before with the director and was nominated for a Bafta for the television adaptation of her play Random – is a talent to be reckoned with, bringing frozen despair and gulping vulnerability to a character who might otherwise have remained frustratingly enigmatic.

Elba, meanwhile, cements his reputation as one of the most watchable actors of his generation, playing Mark with an unsettling combination of puppy-dog charm and tortured self-control, never upsetting the fine balance required to make the relationship plausible but carefully unspooling his character’s supply of sympathy and patience until he reaches the end of his emotional rope.

Francis-Lewis makes a striking debut too: though young, he approaches his role with the intelligence and self-possession of a born actor. And he is crucial: the presence of JJ as an innocent witness is one of the masterstrokes of the film. He observes his mother’s pregnancy with an astute wariness: we gradually realise that he has spent 11 years as the beloved only child who appeared – a miracle in himself – after several traumatic miscarriages; the new baby is a ‘second coming’ in this sense too.

The couple’s difficulty in having children is one of the motifs that the film reiterates in different keys, and indeed it helps to raise various questions about the way women are defined by their reproductive status. Jackie is permitted no privacy as she suffers her body’s mutinous attack – her growing belly will overrule her, will speak for her, in the end. Her increasingly desperate attempts to regain control only result in her waging war on herself: the pregnancy is both something she is doing, and something that is being done to her, and when she rejects her own capacity for motherhood it is JJ, even more than Mark, who absorbs the emotional damage.

Kai Francis-Lewis as JJ with Marshall

JJ’s status as the moral centre of the piece seems to creep up on the film, since he is rarely its primary focus. He is a marginal presence, and confronts the adult world only tentatively, preferring to retreat into the natural landscape of a nearby common, where he patiently befriends a wild crow by feeding it little pieces of bread.

These sequences are a lush, green counterpoint to the bustling, cosy house and the strip-lit beige interiors of Jackie’s workplace, and provide a refreshingly legible representation of JJ’s inner life – which serves to emphasise again Jackie’s steadfast refusal to reveal her own. The featherlight subplot concerning JJ’s bird is so quietly introduced that it’s easy to miss its significance until the film’s ambiguous but uplifting conclusion.

In the end, what had seemed a perverse refusal on the part of Tucker Green to deliver the key revelation becomes an invitation to let go of the expectation of total meaning and perfect comprehensibility delivered by an omniscient creator. Instead, Second Coming asks us to notice a more modest miracle emerging from the chaos and uncertainty of the everyday.

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