'Second Coming': Toronto Review

Hillbilly Films
The inaccurate conception

Idris Elba lends his star power to this low-key psychodrama about a London woman who becomes pregnant by unexplained, possibly divine forces

An uneasy mix of social-realist drama, psychological thriller and Biblical allegory, Second Coming is the feature-length directing debut by award-winning British stage dramatist Debbie Tucker Green. Supported by the Sundance Institute and the British Film Institute, this intimate low-budget portrait of an unusual family crisis in contemporary London is bound to generate buzz thanks to the stellar presence of a brooding Idris Elba. But in truth, Elba is overshadowed by his female co-stars, especially Nadine Marshall, who gives an intense and multilayered turn.

Specializing in dramas about black British characters with Caribbean heritage, Tucker Green previously directed Marshall in the BAFTA-winning television adaptation of her 2012 stage play Random, which also screened in TIFF. Both films feature dialogue that mashes up Jamaican patois with more standard English, but nothing in Second Coming will prove too challenging for most Anglophone viewers. The film’s cryptic and noncommittal tone, on the other hand, may cause confusion and potentially limit its commercial appeal. Premiering this week in Toronto’s Discovery strand, a hometown launch follows next month at the London Film Festival.

A tense domestic situation takes a bizarre turn when Jackie (Marshall), who works in a social security benefits office, discovers she is pregnant. Just one problem: She and her long-term partner, railway maintenance worker Mark (Elba), have not had sex for months. Even more mysterious: Jackie has not been with another man. In fact, doctors assured her she was unlikely to conceive again after the birth of her son, Jerome (Kai Francis Lewis), now a sensitive 11-year-old only child. So is the pregnancy some kind of divine intervention, a medical miracle or merely a projection of Jackie’s unbalanced mental state?

Second Coming counts down the weeks as Jackie nervously confides in her co-workers, weighs up her alternative options, then finally reveals the pregnancy to Mark. Essentially a decent man, but with a cruel and controlling temper, Mark takes the news very badly. His painfully drawn-out belittling of Jackie, much of it framed by a single sustained close-up of Jerome’s anxious fame, makes a powerful statement about the collateral damage of parental arguments on children. The aftershocks run deep, triggering a suicide attempt and deep family rifts.

Cinematographer Ula Pontikos and score composer Luke Sutherland give the film a dreamy texture and fuzzy-warm feel, which is pleasing to the senses but does not always suit such emotionally intense material. Indeed, much of Second Coming is too opaque and elusive, setting up too many questions without answers. Jackie suffers from nosebleeds and hallucinatory visions during her pregnancy, hinting at some kind of psychological or supernatural deus ex machina that never materializes. A side plot involving a wounded blackbird that Jerome rescues from a neighborhood park appears to have metaphorical significance (after all, blackbirds symbolize sickness or major life change in some cultures), but this again is left unexplained.

Second Coming is full of fine performances and subtle observations, particularly on the fragile power balance between parents, children and other family members. For a Brit viewer, it also is refreshing to see a London drama full of emotionally and psychologically complex black characters who are not limited to representing race-defined themes. But as it progresses, this puzzling parable begins to feel overlong and underpowered, teasing us with secrets that it is ultimately unwilling to share. The premise is pregnant with promise, but the conception is far from immaculate.

Production company: Hillbilly Films

Cast: Nadine Marshall, Idris Elba, Kai Francis Lewis, Sharlene Whyte

Director: Debbie Tucker Green

Writer: Debbie Tucker Green

Producers: Polly Leys, Kate Norrish

Cinematographer: Ula Pontikos

Editor: Mark Eckersley

Music: Luke Sutherland

Sales company: Protagonist Pictures

Rated 14A, 105 minutes