I’ve heard many people speak highly of Emma Jane Unsworth, therefore I was very interested to watch Animals, an adaptation of her classic 2014 novel, also written by her. Said to be the story of two best friends finding their way (already see the likeness to animals?) and coming to a crossroads, the book is well known for its comedic elements and strong writing – ripe material for a comedy about messy friendships and self destructive females looking for a happy ending.
Aspiring writer Laura (Holliday Grainger) has been long time friends with the creative and free Tyler (Alia Shawkat) who spend their nights gallivanting through Dublin in drug-fuelled, alcoholic riots, but spend the days “creating” and talking up their process. Things take a turn when Laura meets pianist Jim (Fra Fee) and her relationship with Tyler changes as her future begins to deviate from the life they’ve known.
Off the bat, the script for Animals is excellent. Parts that out think should play out one way, don’t, and you never feel 100% on top of it. There are moments of uncomfortable silences and delicacy in certain scenes that aligns so strongly with real life, that you can tell that the friendship is based on something real. But from a direction perspective, there lacks subtlety at times and there are times that the film glosses over parts of the story that it could have afforded to go further in on.
The characterisations also fall short, particularly as we see Laura’s constantly stares into nothingness and Tyler is relegated to the role of the contemptuous friend and erratic force in Laura’s life. Director Sophie Hyde never finds a great sense of pace – perhaps intentional – an feels lazy at times. The beginning montage shows the vices of the women, but we never come to learn much more about them. The friendship runs its own course and we never really see the nuance or the cogs that make it tick so effortlessly. Hyde’s direction feels stylised and sometimes compromises the human element at the heart of Unsworth’s writing.
There are certainly funny moments of the film, which is where credit is due for the actresses. You can tell when they have more freedom outside of the script as both Grainger and Shawkat’s reactions and delivery stick the landing. The former really shines and the audience is immediately captivated at every turn and Shawkat is her normal hilarious self. The costuming is also fabulous and channel exactly the vibe to represent the stage the girls are in their lives.
One of the biggest issues of Animals is that the relationship between the two girls feels so overdone by the likes of Girls, Trainwreck, Bridesmaids, etc, that it loses newness here. While at times vibrant, the film becomes dreary at times and Tyler’s spotlight dims as the film goes on. By the end, you feel like you have lived the lives of these girls twice over, and gained very little.
The acting performances here are great. Plus we get to see more of a modern Dublin that is fun and bursting with life. Unsworth’s dialogue is carefully crafted and poetic at times.
Hyde’s direction feels uncertain and doesn’t do the script justice. Pacing is a big problem throughout and you can’t help but feel like there’s more to be said. The three false endings at the conclusion show that the film is also overlong and lacks a strong conclusion.
Originally published on Back Row, 30 August, 2019.