Hot off the heels of Tell it to the Bees last month, Holliday Grainger revisits themes of complex female relationships and domestic isolation in Animals, Sophie Hyde’s film adaptation of Emma Jane Unsworth’s novel. However, whilst having similar themes to Grainger’s previous film, the subtlety and memorable aesthetics present in Animals makes it a thoroughly more entertaining - and thought-provoking - affair.
Grainger plays Laura, a Dublin native who likes partying hard and worrying about mid-thirties responsibilities less. Shacked up with her close friend Tyler (Alia Shawkat) Laura’s unpredictable lifestyle, in which the party never stops each day, initially appears as a haven. Yet this frivolous existence is threatened, as Laura’s sister’s (Amy Molloy) pregnancy and the arrival of budding suitor Jim (Fra Fee) prompt a quarter-life crisis for Laura.
With Unsworth writing the screenplay, the complex ideas of her novel, such as adult responsibility as you age and female friendship, are not lost on the big screen. Through Grainger and Shawkat’s committed performances, Laura’s frustration over keeping the work/life balance intact remains a compelling central conflict for the audience throughout. What is so effective about the script is how it explores these themes rather than attempting to present clear messages about them. Potential tropes in coming-of-age dramas (e.g. the love interest breaking up the friendship) are subverted, leading the audience to continue to ponder the film’s overriding values long after the credits roll.
This effect is in no small part attributed to the script and central performances. Grainger as Laura effortlessly moving from a love for Tyler and the hedonistic party scene, to a fragility over confronting adult life. Throughout, Grainger gives Laura a deeply human presence. Shawkat’s languid body language and charismatic American drawl as Tyler combine to create a thoroughly believable bond of platonic female love in the two characters, making the scenes in which they are together all the more engrossing.
In terms of aesthetics, director Sophie Hyde adds visual pizzazz to the events that also mirrors the characters' mindsets. Harsh close-ups and shallow depths of field are most prominent, with characters fading slowly into focus whilst the aura of faded yellow night-lights act as warm hazes in the background. This stylistic choice cleverly establishes the isolation that Laura feels as the film progresses, unsure of whom and what to commit to in her life. The camera also captures Laura’s stream of consciousness effectively, with slowly-fading-into-focus shots of Laura’s notes in her journal capturing her spontaneous thought process.
Whilst the film never switches its focus from Laura’s central plight, the city life of Dublin is captured through mise-en-scene, from the cosy brown walls of an afternoon poet’s meeting, to the flashing intensity of bars and clubs. Yet this strong sense of place is not helped by the soundtrack. The cymbal crashing-intensity of the score feels like a missed opportunity to evoke the contemporary Dublin music scene.
To add to the nit-picks, the film remains very much Laura’s story throughout, unfortunately sidelining Tyler to some extent. Whilst the opening montage seems to indicate their close friendship, Tyler and Laura’s bond is only intermittently used as a plot point, and the film could’ve benefited from exploring their relationship more consistently.
Despite these criticisms, the film never loses its complexity in dealing with human relationships in ambiguous and impactful scenes. This complexity, coupled with the script and visuals adapting the novel from page to screen with ease, makes Animals an innovative take on the coming-of-age genre.