Where was John David Washington four years ago? The guy is a significant screen presence, and with Hollywood lineage to boot, but prior to his lead turn in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, which he took at age 33, no one had really heard of him.
I do actually know the answer to that question, as do a few others stateside because from 2006 to 2012 he was playing professional football (American). He had acted as a child and had a production credit on The Book of Eli at 26, but since his return to films he has made six films and with BlacKkKlansman and Tenet he has totally made his name (his own).
Zendaya on the other hand, despite being only 24, is an actor we’ve seen on the rise for a while. Twelve years ago she was a backing dancer for Selena Gomez before joining her and others, including Zac Ephron, Vanessa Hudgens, Miley Cyrus, Raven-Symoné, Demi Lovato and Bella Thorne as one of the many young faces of The Disney Channel. You wouldn’t have thought it, even after her strong turns in Spider-Man and The Greatest Showman, but now she looks set to eclipse them all, at least cinematically (some of them have very healthy music careers). Her performance as a teenager recovering from a drug habit in HBO’s Euphoria won her an Emmy and her Greatest Showman co-star Zac doesn’t have one of those.
Now Washington and Zendaya are appearing together in Malcom & Marie which is only going to cement their status. The film features just the two actors as a couple who have returned home after a night out, the limited cast being at least partly because the film was made last Summer in the midst of COVID-19. Practically playing out in real time we see the couple eat, unwind, change clothes, pee and slowly head to bed. I’m not sure I’ve seen a film with more visits to the bathroom but it would have been inauthentic to leave this out and the film strives for authenticity. The first thing that happens is Marie entering the house in a glamorous dress only to hike it up and sit on the loo which sets out the movie’s stall pretty quickly; glam but grounded. The other thing these two do is talk, and talk and talk.
These conversations explore their relationship but also, as their evening out was for the premiere of a film he had directed, the dialogue gives an interesting analysis of the state of modern US cinema and how it is created, read and celebrated. For anyone interested in film this gives Malcolm and Marie a second highly compelling element. Shot in sharp black and white with beautiful framing and great use of largely diegetic music, the movie talks the talk and walks the walk.
Malcolm and Marie themselves are fairly combative and both can be a little objectionable, her less than him, but remain compelling company and while this is tested you do root for them as a couple. Zendaya and Washington are both able to face their close ups with measured but powerful performances. If it were a competition I think she would take it but actually what it is is a great screen partnership. The impressive writing and directing comes from Sam Levinson, who like his leading man is also stepping out of the shadow of a successful father who is in the same line of business as him. Levinson, also the creator of the aforementioned Euphoria, is only going to see his stock rise off the back of this film as well.
The Ripley Factor:
The conflict between the couple in this film starts because he has given a speech at his premiere and neglected to thank her. As their debate progresses it becomes evident quite how much he is indebted to her and as such the whole movie is about men acknowledging women. Marie doesn’t quite get the last word but she has the final victory, getting credited for her role before the credits roll.
I do have one issue though and given how savvy the film is about cinematic tropes I’m a little surprised they have fallen at this tired hurdle. So, there are two people sharing the screen, a man and a woman. He is wearing a shirt and tie for most of the run time. The tie does come off at one point and come time for bed he does change into some sleep shorts but mostly an undone top button is the full limit to how dressed down he gets. She on the other hand starts in a revealing dress, which is pulled up above her butt at one stage. There is then a lengthy scene where she is in the bath and after this she spends the remainder of the time in a vest and knickers. There isn’t any nudity but neither is there equality.
Watching this movie that so understands the construction of cinema as a medium and is so conscious of every reading, I couldn’t believe this wasn’t deliberate and I found it hard to rationalise. Then sure enough near the end the script acknowledges it. They are talking about a scene in his film where she is being critical because a female actor is topless and in defence of this he says to his undercrackered partner ‘Well if this was a movie would I be sexualising you or is this just what you happen to have on on a Friday night?’ It’s all very meta but it flagging it doesn’t actually justify it. The film would have lost nothing if she’d been in pyjamas, apart from lots of shots of Zendaya’s bare legs. I don’t know if I’m missing something but it suddenly isn’t just the tones the film is shot in that is all grey and black, there is a pot and a kettle here somewhere with a similar hue.
Couple this with the title of the movie that leads with his name and the balance starts to feel off. I know that with Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra, Porgy and Bess, Robin and Marion, Sid and Nancy, Harold and Maude, Benny and Joon, Harry and Sally and Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice this is the more common convention and to have put her first would have been making a statement but it would have been a good statement to make.
Even with this though, the film is definitely recommended.
Marie & Malcolm is on Netflix now.