We open on a man, early 30s, looking tired and weary, painting the stall seats of a running track a bright and glossy red. He takes a short break, drawing on a cigarette, when he spots a group of teenage girls going on a run with who we assume is their instructor. One of them, clearly very headstrong and quite literally marching to the beat of her own drum, is a few paces ahead of the rest, outrunning even her own instructor. The man zeroes in on her with evident interest, the nature of which we will soon come to explore. He is Pete (Cosmo Jarvis), a painter and self-proclaimed interior designer who lives alone in an ironically unfurnished apartment that’s constantly defaced by graffiti-spraying kids. She is Laurie (Lauren Coe), the new girl at school and a social outcast who spends her nights alone wandering around the local dives, and their strange and secret friendship is the focus of Nathalie Biancheri’s feature film debut, the disquietingly powerful and heart wrenching Nocturnal, which premiered at the 2019 edition of the London Film Festival to rave reviews.
Jarvis completely disappears into the character of Pete, a broken, troubled man that has what seems like the weight of the entire world on his shoulders. He brings a charming gruffness and hidden sensitivity to the role and makes us empathise with a character who, on paper, might not come off as very sympathetic. With a career stacked full of incredible performances, including his recent impeccable turn as a boxer in Nick Rowland’s Calm with Horses, Jarvis somehow manages to deliver the best of his career so far in Nocturnal, using his eyes and his physicality to express the words and feelings his emotionally stunted character struggles to verbalise throughout the course of the film.
Newcomer Coe shines as Laurie, the alienated daughter of a single mother who has trouble connecting with people her own age. Evoking shades of early Jodie Foster, Coe plays Laurie as a force to be reckoned with; scoffing and sneering her way through altercations with her mother and her classmates, a defence mechanism that, we later learn, she has only adopted in order to camouflage her own issues and insecurities. Elsewhere, Sadie Frost delivers a solid performance as Laurie’s single mother Jean, while Amy Griffiths and Amber Jean Rowan do their best with the material they are given. Nocturnal is very much a two-hander between Pete and Laurie, with Jarvis and Coe playing off of each other’s strengths and vulnerabilities, turning in absolutely captivating performances in the process.
The screenplay, courtesy of Biancheri and Olivia Waring, constantly twists and turns, subverting expectations and charting into territories you couldn’t possibly see coming. A reveal that occurs halfway through the film might have come off as soapy or ludicrous in another director’s hands but in Biancheri’s adept, more than capable one, it serves as a moment of clarity for the film, painting all the preceding events in a very different light and providing context to earlier moments and actions. The dialogue is also impressively written, with every single line uttered by each of the film’s characters ringing very true, natural and authentic. Cinematographer Michal Dymek frames the seaside town that the film is set in as a gloomy, cold place where dreams go to die, adding to the already well-established tense and haunting atmosphere of the film.
Ultimately, Nocturnal is an impeccable masterwork of vulnerable filmmaking; so intimately filmed and so masterfully acted, it feels more like a collection of (expertly crafted) home videos and snapshots that it almost feels intrusive to watch. With an upcoming film set to star George MacKay already in pre-production, Biancheri has proven herself to be an exciting new name in the industry and definitely one to watch.
Nocturnal screened at the D’A Film Festival which happened online due to the COVID-19 outbreak
by Ahmad W
Currently based in the UK and the UAE, Ahmad W. is a poster designer, budding screenwriter and journalist from Boston and the (self-proclaimed) #1 Robert Eggers stan. His favorite films include mother!, The Witch, Black Swan, Hereditary and Scream. His claim to fame is a DM he got from Ari Aster (who has since left him on read) and his favorite pastime is spending the day in a cold, half-empty movie theater. You can follow him on Twitter at @ephwinslow.