If Beale Street Could Talk review – a heart-stopping love story
8Overall Score

By Mark Kermode – The Guardian – 10.02.2019

If Beale Street Could Talk review – a heart-stopping love story

Moonlight director Barry Jenkins cements his high reputation with this mesmerising adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel.

The genius of writer-director Barry Jenkins’s film-making lies in his ability to take a story grounded in very specific circumstances and, through close attention to detail, make it universal. In the Oscar-winning Moonlight, he conjured a portrait of a young man from a hardscrabble, drug-riddled Miami neighbourhood finding harsh beauty in the precise minutiae of his protagonist’s life. Like all great coming-of-age movies, Moonlight struck a chord as timeless as that evoked by Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups, George Lucas’s American Graffiti or Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher. Now, Jenkins’s adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1970s novel becomes a heart-stopping cinematic love story, told with a tough but tender truthfulness that left me weeping and swooning. It’s a terrific film, as sinewy as it is sensuous, interweaving stark social-realist themes of prejudice, oppression and imprisonment with a poetic evocation of love, loss and, ultimately, transcendence.

“Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street,” states the opening quotation from Baldwin, citing “the impossibility and the possibility, the absolute necessity, to give expression to this legacy”. From such boldly declarative beginnings, Jenkins moves to a gently swirling overhead shot of two seemingly shy young lovers walking together, the sound of sustained elegiac strings accompanying their footsteps. “You ready for this?” asks 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne), to which Fonny (Stephan James) replies: “I’ve never been more ready for anything in my whole life…”

It’s a scene trembling with promise and expectation, full of cinema’s dreamy ability to capture the elusive quintessence of love. But that ethereal sense of promise comes crashing down to earth on the next beat as we hear Tish’s voice telling us she hopes that “nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass…”

Like so many young African American men, Fonny (aka Alonzo) has been arrested and jailed on a trumped-up charge, following a run-in with a grudge-bearing white cop (Ed Skrein, oozing menace). Tish is pregnant and promises Fonny he’ll be out and back in Harlem before their baby is born. But while Tish’s family, led by protective matriarch Sharon (Oscar-favourite Regina King) and down-to-earth Joseph (Colman Domingo), are accepting and proud, Fonny’s God-bothering mother (a fearsome Aunjanue Ellis) responds with hostility and spite, blaming Tish for her son’s supposed fall from grace. Can the warring clans put aside their differences for the sake of the next generation?

Now in Cinema Galeries
Screening in French with English subtitles.
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