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Film Review: Queen & Slim

2 February 20 words: Nathan Warby

Melina Matsoukas's slick, character-driven directorial debut has been met with outstanding critic reviews, and recently won the Impact Award from the African-American Film Critics Association...

Director: Melina Matsoukas
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bokeem Woodbine
Running Time: 132 minutes 

Queen & Slim is a stylish and provocative tale chocked full of likeable characters and damning social commentary. While its Bonnie and Clyde narrative may do little to surprise, its poignant themes and goosebump-inducing finale linger firmly in the memory long after the credits have rolled.

The film’s plot is powerful in its simplicity, using its tension-building scenes sparingly to let the quieter, character-driven moments shine through. This is one of Queen & Slim’s greatest strengths; leaning strongly into its characters keeps everything grounded while tension is visibly building in the world around them. This decision also shows the film’s desire not to beat its audience over the head with its messages, choosing instead to leave them bubbling under the surface just enough to always feel important.

An approach like this would fall flat if its characters weren’t up to scratch, but that is far from the case. Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith turn in fantastic performances as the deliberately ambiguous titular couple. Watching their relationship blossom is a joy to behold, as they descend from an awkward Tinder couple on a first date into the martyrs they inadvertently become. Something that wasn’t emphasised in the marketing is that this is as much a love story as it is a thrilling cop-chase. In many ways, the stories of prejudice and injustice are merely a dressing that complement the core romance. Strip all of that away and you’re left with a man and woman unsure of their place in the world, desperately clamouring for someone to notice they exist - something we can all relate to far too well.

the audience’s journey runs parallel with the characters themselves - it feels like we’re learning about them as they’re learning about each other

Despite being so pivotal to the story, details about the characters are unusually sparse from the get-go. This turns out to be a masterstroke from director Melina Matsoukas, in her directorial debut, as the most enjoyable aspect of this entire film is watching these blank slates slowly come to life as more and more colour is added with each conversation. In that sense, the audience’s journey runs parallel with the characters themselves - it feels like we’re learning about them as they’re learning about each other. For a first-time director, this is downright impressive.

In a feature that oozes personality in its presentation and delivery, it is disappointing to see so many crime drama cliches littered throughout. There are multiple situations that feel as though they’ve been ripped straight out of a BBC series, or another movie of a similar ilk. While it doesn’t take away from the enjoyment, it does cause the occasional eye-roll. How much car trouble can two people really have? It would have been refreshing to see these tropes tackled with the same amount of creativity present elsewhere, perhaps by adapting them more contextually to their particular situation.

As well as the titular duo, there's a whole host of supporting characters that they cross paths with along the way. For the most part, while well acted, they only serve to help the duo in their pursuit of freedom, with very few contributing to the main plot in a meaningful way. The exception to this is Uncle Earl, portrayed by Bokeem Woodbine, whose complicated history with Queen provides an extra layer of depth to her already troubled past. There’s also an appearance from Flea, the iconic bassist from Red Hot Chili Peppers, which is always more than welcome.

Queen & Slim doesn’t reinvent the wheel but, through its slick presentation and pitch perfect social commentary, it becomes a statement that feels essential for audiences in 2020. Throw in two immediately likeable and painfully relatable characters, and you’re left with a film that we will look back on as one of the best of the year.

Did you know? This is the first feature film to be directed by Melina Matsoukas, who has previously only directed music videos and TV episodes.

Queen & Slim is screening at Broadway Cinema until Friday 7 February

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