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Trapped with your spouse during COVID-19 lockdown: ‘Together’ reminds how awful that was

Aug. 26, 2021 Updated Thu., Aug. 26, 2021 at 3:26 p.m.

Sharon Horgan and James McAvoy portray spouses in “Together.”  (Peter Mountain/Bleecker Street Media)
Sharon Horgan and James McAvoy portray spouses in “Together.” (Peter Mountain/Bleecker Street Media)
By Ann Hornaday Washington Post

Sharon Horgan and James McAvoy play mates in miserable captivity in “Together,” a spiky, fitfully effective portrait of pandemic-era claustrophobia and undifferentiated angst. As a screen title informs us, the film begins on March 24, 2020, the first day of national lockdown in Britain. The unnamed couple is just returning from a hoarding expedition at local shops; while they chatter to the camera (another unidentified presence in the room), Horgan’s character stashes roll upon roll of toilet paper wherever she can find a spare corner.

What quickly emerges in their brittle, tensely overlapping dialogue is that they detest each other. “I actually think of him as a cancer,” she says brightly. “I hate her face,” he snaps. Meanwhile, the couple’s 10-year-old son (Samuel Logan) eavesdrops from a discreet and mournful distance. The little boy actually has a name, but his parents can’t even agree on that: Dad calls him Artie; Mom insists on Arthur.

Written by Dennis Kelly and directed by Stephen Daldry, “Together” unfolds in seven scenes over the course of a year, during which the deaths in Britain mount (each sequence begins with a date and the number of COVID-19 fatalities) along with free-floating anxiety, profound loss, unresolved guilt and unspoken neediness.

Originally conceived as a stage play, “Together” often plays like a piece of theater captured on camera with Horgan and McAvoy delivering their venomous, sometimes genuinely shattering soliloquies in long, uninterrupted takes. Daldry judiciously cuts away now and then to capture Artie’s sadness and isolation or to observe this bickering couple from a more conventional distance. These offer graceful moments of respite from what would otherwise be a monotonous exercise in displaced anger and mutual contempt.

As their COVID-19 year wears on, we see the physical and psychological effects on the couple: McAvoy’s character grows a beard and affects a dumb-looking man-bun. Horgan’s sarcasm crumbles under the weight of wrenching, impenetrable loss. The text of “Together” is how these two political and temperamental opposites threaten to drive each other mad during lockdown. The subtext, unsurprisingly, is their volatility might be the centrifugal force that keeps their bond strong.

As an artifact of the times in which it was made – in one location over the course of 10 days in a London house – “Together” isn’t particularly weighty, but it possesses undeniable resonance. And there is real pleasure in watching McAvoy and Horgan thrust and parry their way through Kelly’s serrated script even if it invites invidious comparisons to Horgan’s sitcom “Catastrophe,” about a similarly prickly (but far more likable) couple.

In that scabrously funny show, hostility bubbled beneath the jokes just as affection bubbled beneath the meanest digs. “Together,” on the other hand, is too schematic and structurally confined to be able to go deep on the nuances. The characters experience deep things but don’t necessarily deepen themselves; they just get steadily more irritating, at least until an ending that feels rushed and unearned.

But even at its most glancing and superficial, “Together” offers a diverting attempt at capturing recent history in all its maddening contradictions and compromises, recriminations and rages. It reflects a time when all we had was each other, for better or – way too often – for worse.

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