by Christine Westwood

A fox and a cat roam the back streets of Dublin, one animal more susceptible to being tamed, the other forever a defiant scavenger. They point to two women on the threshold of their thirties, and co-dependent flatmates for ten years.

Tyler (Alia Shawkat) is an American feminist at war with every kind of convention and female stereotype that threatens to box her in. Laura (Holliday Grainger) is a would-be writer who scribbles fragments of poetry in her notebook, but when she sits down to transcribe or do serious work she’s stymied by the blank page.

The solution both women choose and that bonds them together as the closest of besties is relentless partying. If you hadn’t grown up in the drink-fuelled culture of English north it would stretch credibility. Mostly wine, glass after glass, then there are the drugs, whatever the girls can get their hands on. Puking in the toilet is a sign of a good night. Relationships with men are wilfully promiscuous.

Determined to stave off ‘growing up’ if it means becoming domesticated and abiding by convention, alcohol becomes a symbol of hedonistic freedom. Tyler is hellbent on staying free forever while Laura is drawn to commitment and marriage.

The story tension is about choice and freedom. We are lured into thinking Laura must be owned by one or other, feminist woman or seemingly ideal man. A scene in a bridal shop encapsulates the battle as the women try on dresses and gargle the free champagne. When it seems Laura is serious about purchasing a gown, Tyler lets loose a barrage of sarcasm and cynicism. For Laura, preparing to be domesticated, the next step would be babies, as demonstrated by her married sister announcing her first pregnancy to the delight of her mother and ailing father.

Director Sophie Hyde has made a riveting film of Emma Jane Unsworth’s adaptation of her own book, with a fluid directing style that refuses predictable choices in the rich, intimate scenes. The ‘animals’ in question are constantly feeding, drinking, mating, against a gorgeous set design by Louise Mathews and cinematography by Bryan Mason, who worked with Hyde on 52 Tuesdays [and is also her partner in life]. The scenes are flooded with jewel rich colours of the mostly interior and enclosed spaces, the girls’ flat, the Irish pubs, the backstreets lit under deep black skies.

52 Tuesdays focused on a teenage girl negotiating her mother’s gender transition. It is raw and deeply uncomfortable in parts. Though Animals is more stylish, both films demonstrate Hyde’s capacity to be unflinching when it comes to putting human behaviour under the microscope while staying true to ‘our real concerns about love, mortality and connection.’

Some may find an annoying polemic in the story debate, but no one else is addressing feminist and cultural issues in quite this way [except maybe Julia Leigh who did Sleeping Beauty], though Animals is also an intelligent and more shocking cousin to films like Bridesmaids and Trainwreck. Besides, the main theme is backed by a deeper thread concerning creative expression.

When Laura is lured to a committed relationship, it is to Jim (Fra Fee), an accomplished musician who tells her “I call myself a musician because I sit down and do it every day.”

Creatively blocked as she is to the point of crazy frustration, Laura tries to emulate him, attempting to confront her lack of skill and discipline. “It’s meant to be hard,” he tells her.

Meanwhile, Tyler fills up Laura’s glass, drags her to nightclubs, tells her it’s not about discipline, it’s all about inspiration and sets herself to be Laura’s muse.

As Jim says, “It’s time you divorced your wife.”

The main actors are well cast. Shawcat and Dermot Murphy as a devilish Irish poet with habits that match the women’s, are strong in all of their scenes, while Fee offers a strong, complex counterpoint to the wild behaviour. Then there’s Granger, who we follow in almost every frame, her childlike face drawing us in as she negotiates a fine line between naïve victim torn between opposing influences and feral woman with an appetite for drugs, booze and sex to match anyone. Her emotional and physical immersion is mesmerising.

The performances and the premise are fascinating – will Laura find her creative mojo, gain autonomy and be happy, and what will give her those things? In the end, Hyde offers no simple answers but the wrap up isn’t altogether unpredictable either. And they’re still drinking…

Animals is screening at the 2019 Sydney Film Festival, which is on between June 5 – 16, 2019


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