Small Axe: Lover’s Rock – Review

A beautifully-textured and euphorically vibrant celebration of culture, community and love, Lovers Rock is another strong anthology chapter in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, writes Nathan Osborne.

Steve McQueen has demonstrated extraordinary range in his career to date: from sex addiction drama to slavery epic, heist thriller to historical drama, his ability to turn his hand to almost any genre has certified him as one of the most exciting and adaptable filmmakers of his generation. Now, just two films into his new-for-television five-film anthology, and on the back of last week’s Mangrove, McQueen flirts with something new – romance, with Lovers Rock.

Co-written with Courttia Newland, Lovers Rock tells the story of Martha and Franklyn, the young lovers we spend a Saturday evening with in 1980s West London. Fictional but inspired by the stories and history of London’s West Indian community of the time, Lovers Rock is a film oozing with joy and vibrancy, celebratory of culture, community, music and love.

Lovers Rock (2020) directed by Steve McQueen • Reviews, film + cast • Letterboxd

Operating most effectively as a tone piece, Lovers Rocks’ sparse narrative allows the mood to stew and simmer away; the loose plotting making for a lower-key affair that its 69-minute runtime supports, never overstaying its welcome or testing your patience. While it may not be as immediately accessible or nail-bitingly dramatic as Mangrove, it is a film that relies on immersion and a sense of escapism to truly enrapture, with those falling under its spell falling into a beautifully-textured, lived-in world rendered impressively thanks to McQueen’s keen directorial eye for detail. And better still, it ages like a fine wine, only improving with time and distance and, as such, inviting repeat viewing that will be difficult to turn down.

Calling to mind Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk with its luscious cinematography and autumnal colour palette, Lovers Rock is a sensitively-directed ode to the lovers at the film’s heart, with both Amarah-Jae St Aubyn and Micheal Ward turning in strong performances with chemistry to spare. With great affection for both Martha and Franklyn, by simply spending time with these characters, in the world they inhabit and letting their evening unfold without being weighed down by the need for forced narrative beats, Lovers Rocks presents the Black experience in loud and proud glory. Often, cinema can feel the need to make a statement when underrepresented groups finally receive the spotlight: Lovers Rock does no such thing, offering a slice-of-life insight that lets its characters be.

Somehow both culture and time specific, marinating in a specific era and unique experiences, yet also universal in the feelings it evokes, allowing an emotional connection from all, Lovers Rock is a gem –  one that will make you nostalgic for a time you could be crammed in a room with people you only half know, united in your intention to party the night away.  Another excellent chapter in McQueen’s Small Axe, this anthology is shaping up to be an all-timer/

Lover’s Rock plays on BBC1 tonight at 9pm 

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