'State of the Union': TV Review | Sundance 2019

A funny and savagely clever use of the shortform format.

Rosamund Pike and Chris O'Dowd shine in Nick Hornby and Stephen Frears' Sundance TV relationship dramedy, told in 10-minute episodes.

Time, both its passage in the narrative and as a formal device, is like a third main character in Sundance TV's relationship dramedy State of the Union. A series of 10 episodes of roughly 10 minutes apiece, State of the Union is being shown in its entirety, basically as a 100-minute feature, at the Sundance Film Festival. While I'm not sure that's exactly the perfect way to watch this clever and beautifully acted piece, Stephen Frears and Nick Hornby's perceptive two-hander is still well worth seeing.

Tom (Chris O'Dowd) and Louise (Rosamund Pike) have been married for 15 years, but something has gone badly wrong. He lost his job as a music critic and checked out emotionally. She had a desultory affair. Now they're starting marriage counseling in the hope of figuring out if their union is salvageable. Each week, before their session, Tom and Louise meet at the nearly empty pub across the street for a quick drink. She has a glass of white wine. He has a pint of London Pride. Together, they attempt to pre-game their therapy, laying the foundation for what they want to talk about, what secrets they'd prefer to keep and whether they're making progress. They joke. They flirt. They spin wild analogies. They pick at raw wounds. And they make fun of the couples leaving the counseling sessions before them.

It's a cheeky title because in addition to Tom and Louise's union, the series has Brexit as its perpetual backdrop, the split in their country as a not-inappropriate metaphor for their own estrangement and their respective Brexit votes as part of the laundry list of sources for estrangement. State of the Union is probably as much or as little about Brexit as you choose to make it, though, so don't let that be a deterrent.

A showcase for its entire high-powered creative team, State of the Union is first and foremost about Hornby's typically adroit treatment of contemporary relationships. The conversations that Tom and Louise have are generally funny, skipping around pop culture references ranging from Call the Midwife to the films of Preston Sturges to generational confusion about modern dating. They're also utterly lacerating, things they can't bring themselves to say to a stranger, but know they need to say out loud, even in a public place. Episodes are structured so that ideally your sympathies shift with each passing week and each revelation. Neither Louise nor Tom is blameless and the show doesn't position either as a clearly wronged party. It also isn't consistent from one episode to the next if you're supposed to think this is a union worth saving at all. If I had to give my own assessment, I'd say State of the Union is a little more generous toward Tom, though whether viewers agree will probably depend on their general feelings towards Hornby's most common protagonist type, the well-meaning man-child forced to cope with passing the age at which his behavior is socially acceptable.

O'Dowd is very comfortable with this Hornby archetype after playing a less appealing version in last year's Sundance offering Juliet, Naked. That character was more trapped in his arrested development. Here, the actor builds Tom with a reasonable balance of both the humor that could plausibly have attracted Louise to him in the first place and the sad confusion he's experiencing now that he's no longer being enabled or embraced. If I maybe sympathized more with Tom, it's Pike's performance that I found most revelatory. She's an actor of tremendous range who films have only occasionally serviced properly and this was a reminder of how great she was back in Pride & Prejudice and in the lighter moments of Gone Girl. She hits her funny lines every bit as sharply as O'Dowd does, but the heart of the performance is in the subtle shifts in her wordless responses. Every bit of uncertainty that the audience is supposed to get about this marriage plays out in the softness or narrowing of her eyes, the tightness or relaxation of her expression. Some streaming network needs to get Hornby and Pike working together on an ongoing TV series immediately.

The pleasure in Frears' direction is that it's as noticeable or invisible as you want it to be. From episode to episode, the characters are positioned differently within the frame and their conversations are cut with different rhythms. Based on interactions, some episodes are dominated by tight close-ups of the actors as individuals, while others let Pike and O'Dowd share the frame in most shots. Each episode they arrive at the bar differently and each episode their departure from the bar and the short trip across the street is put together differently. For viewers who don't want to pay attention to compositional minutiae, that's why State of the Union never feels claustrophobic. For viewers who want to pay attention, it's a master class that aspiring filmmakers would do well to study.

As of this writing, Sundance TV hadn't announced how episodes would premiere, and I'd probably suggest a little separation. Watched binge-style, State of the Union is an odd experience. Each episode individually just flies by, and yet a conscious awareness that there are 10 pieces to get through makes it lag as a whole, which it really shouldn't. Each episode has just enough of a relationship cliffhanger that it ought to sustain curiosity and investment if episodes premiered daily or even weekly. Ultimately, it'll be up to most viewers to decide for themselves how they want to watch State of the Union and the collaboration between O'Dowd, Pike, Hornby and Frears, but seek it out they should.

Distributor: Sundance TV
Stars: Rosamund Pike, Chris O'Dowd
Creator/writer: Nick Hornby
Director: Stephen Frears
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Indie Episodic)

100 minutes (10 episodes, roughly 10 minutes apiece)