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‘Femme’ Review: George MacKay and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett Lift Under-Powered Queer Revenge Noir



The sinewy physicality and febrile intensity that George MacKay brought to films like True History of the Kelly Gang and 1917 gets amplified by ferocious self-loathing Woman. Playing London thug Preston, festering deep inside the closet, MacKay is matched by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as a drag queen he viciously attacks, who rises like a phoenix to play a dangerous game of revenge. Expanding their 2021 short film of the same name, debuting directors Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping bring plenty of provocative ideas about queer power dynamics and different forms of drag to the table. But the result is disappointingly sluggish, its payoff ineffective.

One of the issues holding Woman back is uncertainty of tone. The writer-director team clearly means to maintain ambiguity about the intentions of Stewart-Jarrett’s character Jules, masking his end goal in real or feigned romantic intoxication. But that has the unfortunate side-effect of playing like outdated queer miserablism and self-punishment. By the time the tables are somewhat schematically turned, the maudlin feeling is hard to shake.


The Bottom Line

Admirable in intention but comes up short in execution.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
Cast: Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, George MacKay, Aaron Heffernan, John McCrea, Asha Reid, Peter Clements
Director-screenwriters: Sam H. Freeman, Ng Choon Ping

1 hour 38 minutes

The original 18-minute short starred Paapa Essiedu from I May Destroy You opposite Harris Dickinson; the filmmakers opted to recast to give the feature its own distinct identity. But their script is short on psychological texture, relying on the lead actors to add shading, and the co-directors’ technical skills lack polish, often settling for murky visual flatness instead of the desired moody noir nightscape.

Jules performs at an East London club as artsy glamazon Aphrodite Banks. He’s taking a break outside between shows when he spots heavily tattooed Preston checking him out before hurrying off. Still in Aphrodite guise, Jules goes to a local store for cigarettes and stiffens in fear the moment Preston and his fellow drug-dealing mates wander in. That sudden tension will be familiar to any queer person who ever found themselves in an unsafe space at the wrong time.

When Jules makes the mistake of responding to their taunts, ridiculing Preston by questioning his sexuality, he swiftly pays the price. Egged on by his friends, Preston follows him outside the shop, savagely beats him and leaves him bloodied and weeping on the sidewalk.

Three months later, Jules remains traumatized. He has retired Aphrodite and rarely leaves his flat despite the concerned pleas of his best friend and housemate Toby (John McCrea): “Every time you do this, you’re letting them win.”

When Jules finally summons the nerve to go out, it’s to a cruisy gay sauna. He’s about to leave as he recognizes Preston in a volatile altercation with another guy whose advances were unwelcome. A furtive exchange of glances in the locker room leads to a terse invitation from Preston to follow him, giving Jules brusque instructions to stay well behind him so no one sees him enter Preston’s flat. The sex that follows is urgent and brutal, but despite a close call when Preston’s housemates return unexpectedly, he arranges to text Jules for a follow-up.

Even at the earliest point in their evolving relationship, it’s clear that ex-con Preston’s brand of drag is tailored around expected codes of masculinity. Having failed to recognize Jules as Aphrodite, Preston starts squiring him out on dates, making a big show of ordering at restaurants before steering Jules out for rough sex in dark alleys. Jules allows Preston to believe that’s exactly how he wants it. Or maybe it really is?

It’s here that the script’s teasing suggestion of some kind of queasy Stockholm Syndrome participation between victim and abuser gets tiresome, especially once Jules starts mixing up reality with dark porn fantasies. He describes his post-date feelings to Toby and the tight-knit household’s third member, Alicia (Asha Reed), as “Frustration, confusion, a sprinkling of self-loathing.” That has the unfortunate effect of distancing the audience from Jules as a character too willing to surrender his dignity to someone who caused him great physical and psychological pain.

Of course, Jules’ behavior is yet another layer of drag, although the script starts leaning into Queer Studies territory when he admits to missing the powerful presence of Aphrodite: “It’s like she was the real me and I was the performer.”

Stewart-Jarrett (an outstanding Belize in the Tony-winning 2018 Angels in America revival, also seen in the recent Candyman remake) can’t do much with groaners like that one. But he’s terrific as Jules starts playing with fire, cozying up to Preston’s straight mates and risking exposure, just as a hint of gentleness starts creeping into Preston’s rapport with him.

The role reversal in which the dividing line separating the “big man” from the “little bitch” is erased becomes entirely predictable, not helped by messy writing of a pivotal scene that sees Aphrodite return to the stage. The whole denouement is clumsy, right down to the use of agitated handheld camera to mirror the violence of the early assault. With the thriller element fumbled, the outcome is robbed of impact, and too much of the work is left to Adam Janota Bzowski’s moody electronic score to provide some emotional weight.

Faltering storytelling and sloppy visual technique aside, the pas de deux of tenderness and violence, passivity and aggression between Stewart-Jarrett and MacKay keeps you watching, with both actors mostly overcoming the clichés in the way their characters are conceived. But Woman ends up being less subversive than it seems to think it is.

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