Malcolm & Marie (4 stars)

Malcolm & Marie

Beautiful and intense two-hander that sees Zendaya and John David Washington knock it out of the park

The films of John Cassavetes provide the inspiration for this made in lockdown two-hander unfolding over one long, emotionally stormy night, which gives huge room to manoeuvre to its two striking stars, Zendaya and John David Washington. Written and directed by Assassination Nation's Sam Levinson, he swaps that film's outlandishness for something more stripped back and intimate and the result is a minor marvel.

Shot in luscious black and white by Marcell Rév (working as part of a skeletal crew), Malcolm & Marie evolved from discussions between Levinson and the Emmy-award-winning star of his TV hit Euphoria, Zendaya, when Covid caused the show to halt filming. The story was inspired by a real-life faux pas involving the director and his wife, and what it unravels into is one of those all-encompassing arguments, as a couple prod and provoke each other about various aspects of their relationship and personal failings, coming fleetingly together and breaking painfully apart.

It's all very plausible as filmmaker Malcolm (Washington) and his glamorous ex-actress partner Marie (Zendaya) arrive back at their isolated and very luxurious rental following the premiere of his latest film, which, unlike his previous efforts, has attracted significant critical praise. The arrogant Malcolm is absolutely cock-a-hoop at his success but, although she bites her tongue and sets to work making them both mac and cheese, Marie appears to be fuming. Malcolm, it transpires, has drawn heavily from his girlfriend's experience of drug-addiction in the creation of his masterpiece, and he's forgotten to thank her.

As fantastic as both Tenet and BlacKkKlansman were, Washington has been somewhat constrained by his main roles to date and, as the recriminations fly, this really gives him the opportunity to let rip and he manages to be both insufferable and vulnerable, playing a self-absorbed creative whose ego is first bolstered then bruised. Anyone in doubt of his star quality will enjoy seeing what he can really do. Zendaya, too, is marvellous as the used and abused muse; Marie is perhaps a little less fleshed out as a character – perhaps unavoidably, the film feels more aligned with the male protagonist's perspective – but she brings a drowsy, exhausted edge to a role that still gives her plenty to do.

With Malcolm raging about being a Black filmmaker at the mercy of white critics, a white writer-director like Levinson wading into the debate on race is going to be controversial, but the filmmaker does a pretty good job, perhaps as a result of what sounds like a very collaborative creative process. It's also great to see actors of colour get stuck into this kind of retro-infused acting masterclass, given the lack of such opportunities historically. And while the characters may not be especially lovable, anything that provides a platform for such intricate performances is a joy to watch.

Available to watch on Netflix from Fri 5 Feb.

Malcolm & Marie

  • 4 stars
  • 2021
  • US
  • 1h 46min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Sam Levinson
  • Cast: Zendaya, John David Washington, Kevin Turen, Ashley Levinson, Sam Levinson
  • UK release: 5 February 2021