Lovers Rock (5 stars)

Lovers Rock

LFF 2020: One hell of a house party unfolds in the hypnotising second part of Steve McQueen's Small Axe

A night to remember unfolds in hypnotic style in Lovers Rock, the second instalment in Steve McQueen's Small Axe anthology series, focusing on the Black British experience. McQueen and co-writer Courttia Newland pare back the plot, in a film that runs to only fractionally over an hour, instead revelling in atmosphere and emotion, allowing us to more authentically absorb the highs and lows of a banging, early 80s house party in West London.

The film takes an interest in a few characters, including birthday girl Cynthia (Ellis George) who dresses to impress and stares fiercely at those that might upstage her, but it comes to focus on Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn's Martha and Michael Ward's Franklyn, as they hook up and slope off. Martha is there with her pal Patty (Shaniqua Okwok), who is none too thrilled at the turn of events.

Lovers Rock perfectly illustrates how hopes are pinned on nights like this and how, with hate held at bay, the crowd are able to lose themselves. When the outside world intervenes, it is to cast a gloomy shadow: a gang of white boys lingering on the street hurl racist abuse, before being scared off by a very effective bouncer; and Martha's troublesome cousin Clifton (Kedar Williams-Stirling) arrives to spill the family secrets. It shows the way the vibe in a room can shift with the introduction of an unpredictable personality, as wary glances are exchanged, while scenes where testosterone takes over the dancefloor – previously inhabited by strutting, eye-catchingly attired women – are wild and exhilarating.

Like the other films in McQueen's series, it's photographed by Shabier Kirchner (who also shot Skate Kitchen) and he really excels himself here. It's a gorgeously executed evocation of the era's dating, dance and music scene. McQueen and Kirchner take us into the middle of the action, showing a room united by songs like 'Money In My Pocket', 'Kung Fu Fighting' and 'Silly Games', recording the way glances fall and connections are made, couples try each other on for size, how one woman's creep is another's charmer, and the dark side of dalliances. Clasped, respectfully positioned and wandering hands are all captured in a film that gets unashamedly sexual when bodies begin to cling and grind and pulses rise. Although made for TV, Lovers Rock represents 68 minutes of absolutely sensational cinema.

Screened on Sun 18 Oct as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020. Available to watch on BBC One on Sun 22 Nov.

Lovers Rock

  • 5 stars
  • 2020
  • UK
  • 1h 8min
  • Directed by: Steve McQueen
  • Cast: Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, Micheal Ward, Shaniqua Okwok

Part of director Steve McQueen's anthology series Small Axe, which centres upon life in London's West Indian community in the '50s through to the '80s. An evening at a house party in 1980s sets the scene, developing intertwined relationships against a background of violence, romance and music.