Alice & Jack review: A love story lacking in chemistry and believability

Domhnall Gleeson and Andrea Riseborough are fantastic actors, and Victor Levin a great writer... where did it all go wrong?

Nick Hilton
Thursday 15 February 2024 08:49 GMT
Alice & Jack - trailer

In the dark recesses of the internet, a generation of teenagers are being raised to care profoundly about their prospective sexual partner’s “body count”. How experienced are they? How riddled with notches is their bed-post? And, out there in the big bad world, how many of their exes are swanning around blithely, waiting to re-enter their lives? Alice & Jack, a new six-part Channel 4 drama, knows that it’s not the number of bodies that counts, but who those bodies are. Who’s lurking there, in the past, ready to make the present their own?

“So, who are you Jack?” Alice (Andrea Riseborough) asks Jack (Domnhall Gleeson) as they sit down for their first date. He’s a diffident biomedical researcher; she’s a blunt, cynical finance maestro. They are near total opposites, conjoined by, if anything, a mutual loneliness. Jack drifts through evenings spent alone among the pipettes and test tubes of his research into Hashimoto’s disease, while Alice tumbles from one unsatisfying liaison to another, searching in vain for something to mask her childhood trauma. They say that opposites attract, and so it is with Alice and Jack: they fall into a fragile “situationship”, which explodes (and “reconstitutes”) again and again over the coming years.

The premise of Alice & Jack – in so much as it has one – is the idea that two people could be so magnetically drawn to one another that they cannot move on. When they meet other people – such as Aisling Bea’s Lynn or Tommy McDonnell’s Danny – they exist merely as placeholders, warming the seat until Alice and Jack can become Alice & Jack again. There’s just one problem: Alice is a major train wreck. “Sometimes you’re really drawn to something”, she tells Jack, as they hover in an art gallery, “but it makes you angry or depressed.” She is volatile and indecisive, someone who has spent her life pushing away nice guys like Jack. And if Alice is no picnic, then Jack is hardly an almond croissant. When choosing between morning pastries, Alice selects the “plain” flavour, and her taste for the bland extends to her men.

Let’s get the good stuff out of the way first. Riseborough – who was controversially Oscar-nominated last year for her performance in To Leslie – is one of the best, most humane actresses of her generation. Deploying Riseborough’s native Geordie tones, her Alice swings between self-destructive brittleness and pointed confidence, both of which Riseborough manages to inhabit impeccably.

Gleeson, likewise, is a step above the leading men who generally turn out for Channel 4 dramas. Despite being a 40-year-old man now, Gleeson convincingly embodies Jack through from early adulthood to full maturity – a journey that the casting department of One Day, a very similar show, might take notes from. There are no roles so thin that actors of their calibre couldn’t flesh them out, to some extent at least. And Alice & Jack has all the makings of some serious TV: it is written by Victor Levin – who, if you ignore a recent stint writing for Beecham House, cut his teeth on Mad Men – and directed by Hong Khaou, director of Lilting, and Juho Kuosmanen, whose film Compartment No. 6 won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2021. So, there’s really no excuse for Alice & Jack being as poor as it is.

The key to Alice & Jack’s problems lie in its premise. This self-sabotaging whirlwind of a love – an attraction that ruins marriages and breaks up families – has to be believable. But while they are both life-ruiningly beautiful people, there is little chemistry between Alice and Jack and, more strikingly, only the most fragmentary, tantalising history. The narrative, which unfurls over the course of multiple decades, relies on vast blanks to be filled in. There is an implication of emotional intimacy between Alice and Jack that is never apparent onscreen. But the centricity of their relationship (there is really nothing else to the show) leaves even the top-billed supporting cast, like Bea and Sex Education’s Aimee Lou Wood, who plays Alice’s assistant Maya, floundering. For all the pedigree, there’s also a lot of chum.

Creating characters out of nothing – the act of fiction – is a form of magic. Giving them lives and loves, histories and futures: that’s what turns words on a page into something real. The star-crossed lovers of Alice & Jack, however, stay leaden, never becoming gold. When the inevitable final act tragedy arrives, it feels simply like another pointless trauma inflicted upon these imaginary beings. “Our exes are exes for a reason,” Jack tells his baby daughter. Alice & Jack might’ve done well to follow that advice and just move on with life.

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