Director: Steve McQueen
Stars: Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, Ellis George, Micheal Ward
The second installment in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe strand shows a further loosening of the acclaimed director’s composure; it’s very flex marking it out as one of the most interesting pivots in his career thus far. It may be half the length of Mangrove, but it stands as just as important a statement for this filmmaker, and could be viewed as his most captivating experiment in storytelling since he blazed onto the scene with 2008’s Hunger.
Where Mangrove was tied to the traditional narrative structure of the courtroom drama, Lovers Rock is defined by its free-flowing nimbleness, adhering only to the shifting purposes of the dance floor at a blues party. We’re a decade or so later, and one Saturday night on Ladbroke Road, the young men and women of London’s West Indies community gather for a night of music, courtship and drug-addled celebration. The sense of occasion is palpable from the off as, before we have context for what’s to come, we watch furniture being moved to make way for amps and speakers. Quickly, a space is created with divisions of terrain established; the young men lurk around the DJ’s table; the women sing and cook, setting up a makeshift bar out of the kitchen.
Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) sneak out of their respective homes and convene beneath a railway bridge; they are our nominal guides, taking us to the unassuming bay-windowed townhouse that becomes our base for the next hour. The gathering is to celebrate the birthday of Cynthia (Ellis George), but even this seems arbitrary, even coincidental. Inside, we bare witness to a community being itself, swaying to disco, dub and dancehall, finding a rhythm and locking into it.
To begin with the men line the walls, aloof, as the women dance; ducking and dodging one another’s moves playfully to the tune of “Kung Fu Fighting”. Later, laced with the effects of alcohol and marijuana, scattered seductions begin and, in the very middle of the film, McQueen loses himself in the pleasures of others. The camerawork is beautiful and dexterous, moving deftly between the undulating couples as even the walls themselves start to sweat. There’s a voyeuristic edge to Lovers Rock during this spellbinding midsection, as the dance floor en masse gets hot under the collar. Martha – abandoned by Patty – finds herself pressed against an eligible young man named Franklyn (Micheal Ward), while Cynthia accepts the prowling advances of ne’erdowell Bammy (Daniel Francis-Swaby). The compositional agility on display from cinematographer Shabier Kirchner in this scene is staggering. The warm haze of the lighting invites us to feel present. The room takes on an almost mystical quality and the film temporarily separates itself from narrative impulses completely. It is about bodies and movement; loaded with a recognisable and wholly relatable sense of the sexy.
At its most remarkable, Lovers Rock even evokes a post-coital comedown as the DJ takes the music away. His spell cast, he watches as his flock move to the memory of Janet Kay’s “Silly Games”. The women sing to the phantom song. The sense of unity – of collectivism, and of joy – is rapturous.
The mood can’t last, however. An act of aggression discovered by Martha signals a shift in paradigm and eschews in a whole new tone. McQueen’s film contrasts different types of male posturing. Bammy’s predatory behaviour reaches its nadir, but it happens outside of the party. Inside, meanwhile, the men turn the room into a celebratory hothouse of testosterone. With the women elsewhere, the room becomes a sweaty mass of gesticulating men. The occasion is proud, triumphant and cathartic.
The themes of racial friction and prejudice that dominate this collection of films appears only at the fringes of Lovers Rock, but these moments leave their mark. The local white boys watch the party from afar, afraid of their neighbours, but remain powerful enough to suggest an invisible boundary. Telling, too, is the reaction of burly doorman Samson (Kadeem Ramsay) to the sight of a police patrol car down the street. The house is very quickly locked down. But there’s also a strong suggestion here that the party itself acts as the most joyous form of protest. That its staging is, in a way, an act of defiance, and a beacon in the London night signalling, “We are here”.
Lovers Rock is a hub of celebration and expression, captured in a manner that is wonderfully surprising from this filmmaker. A hard cut to the morning sunlight finds Martha and her new beau Franklyn cycling together. McQueen frames them unconventionally, tilted up from the ground and keeping apace with them, making it look not as though they are restricted to the ground, but as though they are soaring through the sky. It is representative of the emotional lift of the party, while the cheeky full-stop that marks his smash-to-credits also underscores how illicit and precious this night of dance has been. There’s even a religious undertone to proceedings. The man of faith has his cross to carry, but there’s faith to be had in the blues party as well.
Sitting comfortably beside the best ‘party’ films you could mention, don’t discount Lovers Rock for its comparative ‘smallness’. It’s a lion. And from a director who often seems so severe, this is easily his most inviting, purely enjoyable achievement thus far.