There are only seven scenes in Stephen Daldry’s latest film, Together, which, contrary to its miniature size, features big ideas with the psychological effects from recent COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns being among the most central. Despite the film’s dramatic spin on a timely — and ongoing — event as a backdrop to the pitfalls of a frenetic relationship, Together is a monotonous affair with little to add to either the pandemic or relationship genre.
An unnamed couple in the UK — composed of “He” (James McAvoy) and “She” (Sharon Horgan) — settle in their flat while the first lockdown begins circa March 2020. With grocery bags filled with packaged foods and toilet paper, the scene is a callback to the dreary beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sandwiched between the couple is their son, Artie (Samuel Logan), who serves as a mere decorative piece in the background that his parents mention but is never given the spotlight.
He and She occasionally break the fourth wall to share their thoughts on their fraught, sexless relationship, pandemic-related woes (She’s nursing home-based mother faces dire circumstances), and philosophies on the precariousness of life, reflecting a drawn-out therapy session that is engendered by the alienating but deeply reflective space of a lockdown. With each scene representing a linear progression through 12 months, Together is a reminder of our most recent crisis, sometimes to an interesting dramatic effect, while other times, an unpleasant re-experiencing of the previous year’s miasma.
In place of chapter titles of scenes is the number of COVID-related deaths in the UK and, in a turn of hope, when the Pfizer vaccine begins to distribute, figures for the vaccinated start to populate onscreen as well. The move to label sequences with such numbers feels cold, especially when character monologues and heated conversations focus on the importance of communication in the service of love and survival. This framing from current reality extends to snippets from overstated slogans and speeches mentioned in crucial moments. When She delivers an impassioned monologue about the meaning of “exponential” to critique the UK government’s slow response to combat COVID-19, it feels like a rehash of safety measures and protocols from health professionals and concerned citizens that have been said several times now on various media. Consequently, the monologue feels ordinary and, frankly, uninteresting.
Together’s minimalist scale makes it an ideal platform for actors to show off their chops, and McAvoy and Horgan do well with the opportunity. McAvoy is solid as He, a conservative, small business owner who ends up questioning the limits of his ideology in a thrilling monologue about the constant harassment of retail workers during the pandemic. McAvoy’s subtle ticks and gazes reveal a self-admonishing character who subtly changes and becomes a bit more compassionate throughout the film. Though Horgan’s She suffers from poor writing at times — why does the female lead have to be the caring and giving socialist? — the actress intriguingly portrays She as fragile and confused about her rocky and bickering relationship and her virtue signaling work with European refugees.
In He’s monologue about essential workers facing harassment from an unruly public in Together, Daldry and screenwriter Dennis Kelly compose a sequence of focused reckoning; neither the crouched He nor the camera move much, helping build to the apotheosis of the monologue, which sees pandemic-related issues as a layering mask for the personal afflictions of He. In this particular scene, the depicted character’s interiority and newfound kindness are explored with remarkable sangfroid. The filmmaking is inspired, and unlike other scenes, which mostly feature dull visual moves, the choice of a cinematic medium feels warranted and not a convenient substitute for the pandemic ravaged live theater model. The scene is not preachy nor hollow and, instead, intimate and full of depth. If only there were more similarly layered and absorbing moments in Together.
Mo Muzammal is a freelance film critic based in Southern California. His interests include Pakistani Cinema, Parallel Cinema and film theory.