‘Lovers Rock’ review: Steve McQueen’s euphoric night out in ’80s west London

The latest instalment from the director's 'Small Axe' anthology takes viewers to a hedonistic dance party in Ladbroke Grove

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    The only chapter of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology not adapted from real events, Lovers Rock is a sprawling and visceral drama that unfolds during a dance party in Ladbroke Grove, west London.

    Set in 1980, the film loosely follows Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), a middle-class British Christian with Jamaican roots. We watch as, dressed in a homemade party dress of violet and silver, she shimmies out of her window and escapes into the night with best friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok).

    Despite the film’s humble, single-room setting, McQueen presents the action in a wide variety of aesthetically pleasing close-up shots: a cable thrusting into a tyre-sized amp; smoke collecting in the air from generously-packed joints, bright spots of sunlight between girlfriends, as one runs a hot comb through the other’s hair.

    There is no singular narrative to Lovers Rock, but a smattering of different stories are told throughout the film. After Martha is harassed by her white male neighbours on the street, the scene shifts focus to the wardrobe-sized doorman that protects her, the streetlight illuminating a scar on his cheek. A fleeting, healing kiss in the house upstairs holds weight and promise. If anything, it would service the film to include more of these so as to peek a little deeper into the lives of these characters who have been so passionately realised. Elsewhere, cinematographer Shabier Kirchner breathes life into the house itself – from sweat collecting on the patterned wallpaper to hypnotic shadows cast by guests on the dancefloor.

    McQueen and his co-writer Courttia Newland don’t romanticise the insular, West Indian neighbourhood that have gathered for the night. They certainly don’t shy away from showing arguments that later turn violent. Instead, they depict a community enraptured by the pleasures made available to them through several tender, and standout, moments. For example, only some of the crowd can hit the high notes of Janet Kay’s seminal, 1979 rock ballad ‘Silly Games’, but that doesn’t stop the entire room from joining in, over and over again. A masterful change of gear for McQueen, Lovers Rock is one of his best works yet.

    Details

    • Director: Steve McQueen
    • Starring: Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, Micheal Ward, Shaniqua Okwok
    • Release date: November 22 (BBC One)
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