Last Night is the type of film that could easily be swept away during the summer, amongst box office juggernauts like X-Men: First Class, and sure enough, it’s failed to make a splash in this week’s UK box office top ten.
Its main similarity to First Class then, is that I very much saw it as a film of two halves. At least, in this case, the divide is integral. Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington play the lead characters, Joanna and Michael Reed, a married couple who deal with issues of fidelity and temptation when they spend one night apart.
We begin with Joanna taking Michael to task over his fondness for Laura, an attractive female colleague played by Eva Mendes. She suspects that he might pursue an affair with her, but he insists that it’s no more than a crush.
The following day, Michael sets off with Laura for an overnight business trip in Philadelphia, while Joanna stays behind to work on her long-gestating novel. Then Joanna has a chance encounter with her ex-boyfriend, Alex, and agrees to spend a night out on the town with him.
Their stories run parallel through the rest of the film, but this is not to say that they’re given equal attention. It’s a shame, because the result is that Worthington’s character is never more interesting than when he’s on-screen with Knightley, so great is the script’s inclination towards Joanna.
Between them, Worthington and Knightley have starred in several of the highest grossing films of all time, so it’s a nice surprise to see them work so well, and also being so good together, in the earlier parts of the story.
Films like The Tourist construct sexual chemistry between Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie by virtue of their beauty. Depp’s beautiful, Jolie’s beautiful, ergo they should be together. Knightley and Worthington are not so ridiculously beautiful together as that pairing. The chemistry in Last Night is different, because most of the time when we actually see this couple together, they’re arguing.
Joanna and Michael each have more profoundly romantic things to say about the other when they’re talking to other people about their marriage. Paired with the argumentative nature of their scenes together, this reflects something far more realistic and honest about the relationships of actual real people, and not Hollywood ciphers.
As mentioned, however, we stick with Joanna for the most part of the divergent story. To speculate as to why Michael is less well served, it’s as though Sam Worthington is almost too good to be properly developed here, if that makes any sense.
Specifically, I mean that his sexual chemistry with Eva Mendes’ character is expressed as easily as in a glance between them; it suggests something deeper than the Depp-Jolie thing, but it’s just as sexy. Hell, it’s so sexually charged that it provokes the entire opening argument when Joanna merely catches sight of them at a party. With Joanna and her ex, it’s a different story.
Alex, played by Guillaume Canet, is French. The difference between this type of cinematic Frenchman and a real-life Frenchman lies in how his character is played up in accordance with certain national stereotypes. Although the unfolding exposition tells us that he and Joanna had a relationship in the past, he’s very French in his renewed courting of Joanna.
He knows she’s married and committed to Michael, but he remains awfully forward with her. Still, that façade eventually slips away, and we begin to see why he might appeal to her. Although Michael is a real estate agent, the inference is that he’s not quite so sophisticated as his wife, unlike her French ex.
And there’s another reason writer-director Massy Tadjedin focuses so heavily on Joanna, and that’s because her place in the film’s theme needs to be more defensive than Michael’s. Her position is one in which Alex is trying to seduce her, not vice versa. And in Michael’s story arc, Laura is hardly a home-wrecker. The women are made passive, and the men less reliable.
To Tadjedin’s credit, Last Night never gets bogged down in right and wrong, or other such patronising features of ‘chick flicks’, and such like. I actually struggle to think of a more full and frank portrayal of a relationship in recent mainstream cinema. Not that Last Night is a typical ‘chick flick’, per se, because it has too much honesty and too keen a sense of observation for that.
The cinematography is luscious and sensuous, and the sexual tension that pervades the entire film is palpable. The only technical pitfall is in some uncomfortable editing in certain places. Shots are choppily assembled as Joanna gets ready for her day, and you can kind of see what the desired effect was, as you watch the scene land some distance away from there.
Last Night‘s only major deficiency is in the balance required to pull off a relationship story like this one. It’s so well made, and so compelling a depiction of an absolutely ordinary couple (who just happen to live in a swanky New York condo) that it could have been something really, really special if it had only been a little more even-handed towards Michael’s character.
All of this said, neither is it any manner of appropriate date movie. It’s never miserable or preachy, but as insightful as it is, perhaps it serves as the other extreme to the summer’s emotionally infantile romantic comedies, like Something Borrowed. Instead, it feels quite autumnal, so I’m sure it will eventually find an appreciative audience.