sun 20/09/2020

The Photograph review - star-powered romance mostly simmers, sometimes soars | reviews, news & interviews

The Photograph review - star-powered romance mostly simmers, sometimes soars

The Photograph review - star-powered romance mostly simmers, sometimes soars

Lakeith Stanfield and Issa Rae star in Stella Meghie's light-soaked love story

Michael (Lakeith Stanfield) and Mae (Issa Rae) give off heat with every glanceUniversal Pictures

The Photograph, from writer-director Stella Meghie, tells twin tales. The first is all flashback and follows Christine (Chanté Adams, pictured below with Y'lan Noel), a young photographer balancing love and ambition.

The Photograph, from writer-director Stella Meghie, tells twin tales. The first is all flashback and follows Christine (Chanté Adams, pictured below with Y'lan Noel), a young photographer balancing love and ambition. The second follows Christine’s daughter Mae (Issa Rae), who’s getting to grips with Christine’s death when Michael (Lakeith Stanfield) approaches her about her mother’s work. Soon, the narratives weave together: two love stories are set in train.

The Photograph gives you its moral in the opening clip. “I wish I was as good at love as I am at working,” says Christina, reflecting on her life as a photographer. It’s an old camcorder video and Christina looks just offscreen, where you can hear her little girl calling. We spend most of the film with that little girl grown up. In the present day, Mae is a successful curator living a charmed life, but struggling to live the lesson her mother left on camera.

Like many romances, The Photograph starts slow. It fumbles with disjointed moments and predictable narrative shifts, as well as a tricky there-and-back flashback structure. But it gets there: at times the story is as sexy and self-possessed as its charismatic leads. Although the plot unfolds at a leisurely pace, strong performances pin it together. Lakeith Stanfield, fresh from supporting roles in Knives Out and Uncut Gems, shows his depth as a leading man. He’s a natural, beguiling fit as Michael. Rob Morgan is similarly brilliant as Isaac. However, Issa Rae’s performance feels constrained — although she’s a magnetic presence, there’s something about Mae that is ever-so-slightly one-note (or one letter). I found myself wishing that her scenes with Michael would go a little longer, or cut a little deeper, to give them more room to open out.

Y'lan Noel and Chanté Adams bathed in darkroom light in The PhotographAlthough this is an original way to tell a love story, the film’s freshest detail is its mesmerising use of light and sound. In every scene, skin gleams under red, blue and sun-drenched amber light. Director of Photography Mark Schwartzband makes even the cold New York officescapes look dreamlike. This glimmering surface is supported by Robert Glasper’s soundtrack, which swings from hip hop to surging jazz to purring R&B and soul, and gives the film a tidal feel — you feel it crest in moments of emotional intensity. The crescendos soar so high they're almost physical. Surely, this is a make-believe world: a place where a mid-level career in the arts can support a luxe lifestyle and New York homes only gets perfect natural light. But it’s a world that looks and sounds so beautiful to live in, and a daydream that’s pleasurable to believe.

After a shaky start, this film climbs high and climbs confidently. But with too little focus on its most affecting love story — the one unfolding between Mae and Michael — it falls short. Although there is enough technical achievment and raw chemistry to make it worthwile, The Photograph is not all that deep. It may sweep you up nonetheless.

@jill_masters

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