Small Axe: Lovers Rock (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Their one romantic night to remember

Steve McQueen’s remarkable movie anthology series “Small Axe” impressed me a lot for many reasons. Although I have only watched its first two movies at this point, I already marvel at the vivid presentation of Black British people and their life and culture during the late 20th century as well as McQueen’s confidently dexterous handling of story, mood, and characters, and that surely makes me have more interest and expectation on what I going to get from the next three films in the series.

In contrast to “Mangrove”, the electrifying opening entry which is quite raw and intense as a forthright tale of systemic racism and injustice surrounding one modest curry restaurant, the next entry, which is titled “Lovers Rock”, is surprisingly tender, lovely, and joyful in its simple romance drama. As freely and smoothly dancing around its two main characters and many other characters at one certain place, the movie gradually establishes its laid-back mood and rhythm on the screen, and we find ourselves gladly going along with that, while also observing the gradual development of one romantic possibility.

After the opening shot in dusk which will finally make sense to you around the end of the story, the movie, which is set in West London in the 1980s, looks around the busy preparation processes for a house party. While a bunch of black lads are busy with setting a number of stuffs including audio equipments in one big room, we also see several black ladies busily cooking dishes for those guests to come, and you will be a bit delighted if you are disappointed for not getting many cooking moments from “Mangrove” (Full disclosure: I was during my viewing).

Once everything is set and prepared well, people begin to come in groups during the following evening, and they are checked by some imposing black dude standing at the front gate of the house. Although there is not much restriction on entering the house besides paying the modest fee for that, this dude is absolutely serious and solemn as the gatekeeper of the event, and that is why we are amused when he becomes softened a little when he is about to check two young pretty black ladies.

We already saw one of these young black ladies at the beginning of the film, and her name is Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn). Like many other black young women coming into the house, she and her accompanying friend simply want to have lots of fun and excitement as hanging around with young black lads, and we soon observe them and other girls dancing with some of these lads while music is constantly played in the background.

Although the screenplay by McQueen and his co-writer Courttia Newland often seems to be aimless at first as frequently hopping among many different characters in the house, it gradually generates a steady narrative flow along with various pieces of music swinging back and forth between reggae and R&B, and the result is alternatively relaxing and exciting. Probably because I saw “Mangrove” right before “Lovers Rock”, I felt nervous whenever the disc jockey in the movie switched to another song with the sound of police siren, but then I slowly got accustomed to that anyway, and then I found myself looking forward to the next musical moment to come.

Thanks to McQueen and his competent crew members, these musical moments in the film are simply spellbinding to say the least. While the scene accompanied with Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” is surely the highlight of the movie, several other moments are equally exhilarating for their palpable presentation of joy and excitement generated among the characters in the film, and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner deserves all the praises he got considering how he moves the camera so fluidly and effortlessly among many figures on the screen. His camera often seems to be enthralled as much as the characters in the film, and we accordingly become more immersed into whatever is going on the screen, even though we do not totally get it mainly because of the heavy local dialects sprinkled throughout the dialogues in the film (Thank God I happened to watch the movie with English subtitle).

In the meantime, Martha has an accidental encounter with some young man, and, though she did not like him much at first, she comes to spend more time with him after her friend left without saying anything to her. Although he was a bit too blunt in his first approach toward her, he comes to show her more sensitivity and tenderness as time goes by, and she starts to consider being serious about him. It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that these two characters eventually come to explore more possibility of romance between them, and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, a newcomer who made her film debut here, and Micheal Ward, who previously drew our attention for his dynamic performance in “Blue Story” (2019), have a good onscreen chemistry together as their characters tentatively dance around each other.

Overall, “Lovers Rock” entertains and touches us with its joyful romantic atmosphere, and McQueen demonstrates here the relatively lighter side of his immense talent. In my inconsequential opinion, this is the most amiable work in his advancing filmmaking career mainly represented by several dark and serious films including Oscar-winning movie “12 Years a Slave” (2013), and it is certainly nice to see McQueen successfully broadening the range of his talent. To be frank with you, I want to see him compete with Barry Jenkins for judging which one can be better at making a good romance movie.

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