Starring: Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King
Director: Barry Jenkins
Running Time: 119 mins
If Beale Street Could Talk is an American film about a young woman expecting a child who struggles alongside her family to prove her fiancé innocent in a crime of mistaken identity.
From Barry Jenkins, director of the Best Picture-winning Moonlight, comes another tender, intimate and elegant piece of work in the form of If Beale Street Could Talk. Filled once again with the director’s uniquely graceful style, all the while tackling a heavy-going and gritty topic, it’s an engrossing watch at times, complete with moments of stunning emotional beauty. However, it’s also a rather inconsistent film throughout, and while its highs are deeply enthralling, its lows prove both dragging and even boring.
But let’s start on the bright side, with the fact that If Beale Street Could Talk is yet another deeply elegant and touching film that often even surpasses Moonlight when it comes to sheer cinematic beauty. In that, the film is filled to the brim with gorgeous cinematography, with intimate close-ups giving you a strong connection to the lead characters, and sweeping yet elegant camerawork throughout keeping the story in motion with an enthralling energy.
Jenkins does a great job at bringing such unique and striking cinematography together with a story that may be considered a little more conventional. Moonlight worked instinctively with the style, but you wouldn’t think that the romance at the centre of this film would immediately lend itself to such bold imagery in the same way.
Fortunately, Jenkins’ confidence in directing allows that all to come together in such swift fashion, something that lends itself to some of the film’s most beautiful and moving scenes. While almost every sequence in the film is a very tight, intimate perspective on a conversation between two or three characters, there are some moments where that stunning imagery comes together with brilliant emotional drama, as well as a whole host of excellent performances and truly wonderful music.
It’s unfortunately not the case all the way through, and the film’s inconsistencies are certainly its downfall, but before mentioning them, there’s no denying just how impressive some of the most powerful scenes are here, with the film’s opening sequence in particular standing out thanks to its energetic and enthralling dialogue, and heavy emotional drama that plays into both the central romance and the wider social context of the age.
Moonlight, too, had inconsistencies for me, with the stunning highs of that terrifying sequence with Naomie Harris still standing out in my mind two years on thanks to its exceptional visuals and emotional depth, while the film’s final act often descended into frustratingly one-note drama, often even bordering on a mumblecore-style of screenplay.
And that’s where the problems come in for If Beale Street Could Talk. Its best moments are the more dramatic ones, and particularly those that focus on the romantic side of the story, because those that look at oppression and injustice, while featuring a strong and worthy message, fail to deliver a deeper insight into that key theme, rather coming across like a mumbling, overly drawn-out reference to racial injustices in society.
So, while there are moments that will certainly hit you hard here, there are also too few sequences that just drag on through mumbling dialogue that just doesn’t develop the depth necessary to keep you invested in such a scene, which is unfortunately what makes the film feel so dragging and boring at times, and the biggest reason why it all feels so inconsistent throughout.
However, while the story doesn’t quite hit the heights of the directing and cinematography, there’s no denying the strength of the performances here. With a wonderfully likeable yet still dramatically enthralling lead turn from Kiki Layne, as well as a sombre yet powerful performance from Stephan James, the acting is just as impressive as the directing, and lends itself to that intimate and emotionally tender atmosphere that Jenkins is so brilliant at crafting.
And finally, the film’s music absolutely wonderful from beginning to end. With a pitch-perfect collection of original pieces and contemporary music of the age, If Beale Street Could Talk is a deeply immersive portrait of its setting, all the while featuring beautiful and appropriate changes in atmosphere thanks to the stunning music.
Overall, If Beale Street Could Talk is yet another impressive film from director Barry Jenkins. With beautiful visuals, a perfect atmosphere, excellent performances and wonderful music, the film is as elegant as any, but it unfortunately struggles due to a screenplay that features major dramatic inconsistencies, as well as periods of frustrating dialogue that make the film really drag at times, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.2.