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In an ideal world, the promising component parts of Animals would coalesce to make something really good. It’s a comedy with dark edges about the criminally underexamined subject (in film at least) of female friendship, touted in some circles as Withnail & I with women. And it stars two talented, incandescent upcomers, Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat, as hard-partying millennials living in Dublin. Director Sophie Hyde’s previous feature, 52 Tuesdays, made in her native Australia, was a likeable examination of a precocious teenager with a parent transitioning from female to male. The book Animals is based on, a well-reviewed literary work originally set in Manchester, has been adapted by the novelist herself, Emma Jane Unsworth. So why does the end result feel so inert and contrived, even if it’s exceedingly pretty to look at?
Receiving a mixed reception at Sundance, with supporters aplenty as well as detractors, Animals could have a good run as a niche item theatrically after a vigorous trot round the festival circuit. There are sure to be viewers who will clasp it close to their bosoms, finding here something that speaks to them. Some will swoon over the sophomore-year feminism decrying the conventionality of marriage and monogamy often declaimed by Shawkat’s character Tyler. She also sports a fantastically chic array of sexy secondhand-store discoveries, often in hot metallic shades like the foil around Quality Street chocolates. (Renate Henschke’s costumes are to die for.) But despite the feisty amusement with which Shawkat dishes out her lines, with Grainger bantering back at equal pace, the dialogue falls flat, and sounds like the kind of amateur playwriting one stumbles across at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that although Grainger nails the Dublin accent and various local performers fill out the cast, these young folk don’t sound much like Dubliners, eschewing altogether as they do the area’s distinctive slang. For some, that might actually make the film more commercially viable, but even though the location work is solid and the city looks typically sumptuous, a symphony of gray stone and lurid, darkened dive bars, its sense of place feels weirdly artificial, like a very studious reproduction of Dublin youth culture made by someone who’s only ever seen photographs of it or read about it in magazines.
That matters, because the plot is all about a Dublin lass, going-on-30 Laura (Grainger), hovering between two worlds she should know well. On the one hand, there’s the suburban comfort of marriage and family, a lifestyle that has hooked her newly pregnant sister Jean (Amy Molloy), that Laura can see herself snuggling into when she falls for classical pianist Jim (Fra Fee, recently seen in Jez Butterworth’s play The Ferryman on both the London and New York stages). On the other hand, there are all the pleasures of the flesh that she enjoys partaking of with her friend Tyler, a transplanted American — nightly whirlwinds of drinking, scoring drugs and shagging whatever pretty boys they happen to take a fancy to.
Emotionally, Unsworth’s script is insightful about the complexity of female friendships, and the one between Laura and Tyler is a very plausible mix of co-dependence, platonic desire and sisterly intimacy. One montage shows the two women waking up every morning in Tyler’s bed, although apparently they don’t have sex with each other. Nevertheless, Tyler is jealous when Laura hooks up with Jim because he’s taken her playmate away — at one point he calls Tyler Laura’s “wife” — and with toxic calculation she takes pains to undermine them, even contriving to put Laura in the way of handsome if pretentious writer Marty (Dermot Murphy), hoping to break the monogamous bond with Jim.
This intricate emotional love triangle is Animals‘ strongest suit, along with the gleeful joy it takes in watching inebriated sex and substance abuse, and a combination of the two which may be the funniest scene, proving cocaine and cunnilingus don’t really mix. At least you have to give the film credit for teaching that little life lesson, the kind you don’t often see in John Hughes movies. The pic could have done with a little more salty authenticity like that, and fewer trite shots of urban foxes to underscore the characters’ supposedly animal natures.
Production companies: A Screen Australia, Screen Ireland/Fís Éireann, Cornerstone Films, Screen Australia, Screen Ireland/Fís Éireann presentation in association with Head Gear Films, Metrol Technology, Kreo Films, Aristo–Invest/Ari Tolppanen, M1 Capital/Mikko Leino, Adelaide Film Festival, South Australian Film Corporation, Sarah Brocklehurst Production, Closer Productions, Vico Films
Cast: Holliday Grainger, Alia Shawkat, Fra Fee, Dermot Murphy, Amy Molloy, Kwaku Fouere, Olwen Fouere, Pat Shortt
Director: Sophie Hyde
Screenwriter: Emma Jane Unsworth, based on her novel
Producers: Sarah Brocklehurst, Rebecca Summerton, Cormac Fox, Sophie Hyde
Executive producers: Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Mikko Leino, Ari Tolppanen, Celine Haddad, Alison Thompson, Mark Gooder, Jonathan Page
Director of photography: Bryan Mason
Production designer: Louise Mathews
Costume designer: Renate Henschke
Editor: Bryan Mason
Music: Jed Palmer, Zoe Barry
Music supervisor: Kate Dean
Casting: Shaheen Baig
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Sales: Cornerstone Films
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