Dir: Sophie Hyde. Starring: Holliday Grainger, Alia Shawkat, Fra Fee, Dermot Murphy, Amy Molloy, and Pat Shortt. 15, 109 mins
At what point does a friendship slide into co-dependency? It’s the question at the heart of Sophie Hyde’s second feature, Animals, which treads, in part, a well-worn path: two party girls crash into their thirties only to realise they’re growing increasingly distant from each other. Laura (Holliday Grainger) has met a man, Jim (Fra Fee), and is starting to think about settling down. Her best friend Tyler (Alia Shawkat) wants to “reject the nuclear family in favour of an enlightened life”. Adapted by Emma Jane Unsworth from her own 2014 novel, Animals treats its subjects with patience and generosity. You’ll find no life lessons here. Laura and Tyler are free to pursue their desires, to whatever end.
While Laura’s happily spent her twenties in a cycle of drink, pass out, recover, repeat, she’s given a sudden jolt when her older sister announces that she’s pregnant – intentionally, not accidentally. Laura, in reaction, throws herself into a monogamous relationship with Jim and dedicates herself to the novel that she’s only written ten pages of in the last decade. Will embracing conventional adulthood make her any happier than before? It’s not so clear. Although Grainger’s spent much of her career shunted to the sidelines of her films, it’s encouraging to see her get increasing recognition for the level of subtlety she brings to her work. Animals is a perfect showcase for her: Laura may look calm on the surface, but the occasional twitch, smirk, or nervous glance lets us in on what’s really going on.
Tyler, meanwhile, remains confused as to why Laura would ever want to partake in the exact same system they’ve been railing against for so many years. She tries instead to distract her with the temporary charms of Marty (Dermot Murphy), the leader of a bohemian literary circle whose members seem determined to outmatch each other in their utter lack of shame and humility. Tyler herself speaks almost exclusively in snippets of poetry, since she seems to subscribe to the idea of living as art rather than creating art. Why say that her period’s synced with Laura’s when she could declare: “the moon has married us both”? Coming from the mouth of any other actor, this might seem like forced eccentricity, but Shawkat has a kind of mystical conviction to the way she delivers lines that makes you quickly accept that this might just be her native language.
Crucially, Animals doesn’t treat Tyler as the jealous, possessive friend, but aims for something more nuanced. Without ever explicitly stating it, Hyde’s direction plants the idea that these women are holding on so fiercely to their friendship because it’s one of the only ways they can really define themselves. They see themselves as two halves of a whole. When Grainger and Shawkat are onscreen together, it’s like watching an electrical storm brew before our eyes. When they’re apart, they’re less confident in their gestures. It makes it all the more heartbreaking to watch them realise there are differences between them that they may never be able to overcome, offering a refreshing take on toxic friendships that doesn’t put the blame on either party.
Although Unsworth’s book takes place in Manchester, the action has been here moved to Dublin. It’s fitting, admittedly, to see Laura stumble drunkenly in the footsteps of James Joyce and William Butler Yeats (the latter is repeatedly quoted in the film), somehow still lacking in inspiration despite living in a city that lives and breathes literary genius. Cinematographer and editor Bryan Mason allows for a hazy, heady depiction of Dublin, focused on the backstreets and the glow of incandescent street lights. The city seems empty, since Laura and Tyler always navigate it in the dead of night, much like the urban foxes that frequently pop up on screen. Their presence makes for an unnecessary metaphor, really – Animals is so refreshingly nuanced that anything that signposts its themes feels like a detriment.
Animals is released in UK cinemas on 2 August
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