Features Screen Published 3 April 2015

Film Review: The Last Five Years

Tim Bano on the ‘cinematic curio’ that is the screen version of Jason Robert Brown’s song cycle.

Tim Bano

In its elegant simplicity, its lyrics that are by turns poetic and conversational, tragic and humorous, and music that combines Disney schmaltz with Sondheim crunch, Jason Robert Brown’s song cycle approaches some kind of Platonic idea of a chamber musical. Two cast members and a small instrumental ensemble are all that’s needed.

Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) and Cathy (Anna Kendrick) tell the story, in a series of solo numbers, of their five year relationship. He explains it from beginning to end, while she reveals it back to front. She starts with the break up, he ends with it. They’re a fairly self-obsessed couple who marry too young but somehow they also seem identifiable and true (despite a few unbelievable plot points – Jamie, at the tender age of 23, has just signed an epic book deal with Random House and is feted as a literary genius). Of course, the two of them meet in the middle for a strident duet.

At first flush, it’s an unlikely candidate for a film adaptation. The fractured chronology of the love affair, slowly revealed in opposite directions, the fact that there are only two characters who never really engage with each other on stage, and the musical’s exploration of theatre as a medium (Cathy is an actor) – these are elements that do not naturally lend themselves to film. But Richard LaGravenese (who wrote The Fisher King and directed P.S. I Love You) has managed the transfer well, adding a few extra characters and breaking up the songs with some glossy interludes, gleaming shots of parks and skies.

In fact, a couple of songs are made quite a lot better than they usually are on stage. Nobody Needs To Know, Jamie’s admission of cheating on Cathy, is particularly intense precisely because of the extra characters. And LaGravenese uses diegetic music where possible – a pianist at a window plays the film’s opening bars, a ukulelist strums the intro to another song, while Climbing Uphill, which Cathy sings as an audition piece for a musical, is played by a clumsy pianist next to her on stage (a comic cameo from Robert Brown himself).

In Les Mis style the camera, probing shakily around Jamie and Cathy’s flat and rarely staying still, almost constantly remains shoved right under the noses of Kendrick and Jordan. It creates a claustrophobic feeling that is completely appropriate for the musical – which all takes places in the headspace and memory of its two characters. Theatre can do suggestion where film has to do literalism: a theatre audience can happily accept that the narrative of these songs is taking place in the imaginations of Jamie and Cathy, but film has to visually represent these memories. It can’t just leave them imagined – it has to make them real. By staying so close to the actors the camera maintains intimacy with them, it draws the audience into the private and mutual space of Jamie and Cathy’s relationship. We’re not outsiders, not just addressees, but instead we start to become these characters and share in their inner monologues.

This nostril cam also means there’s a lot of focus on facial expression. Kendrick keeps her troubles below the surface, maintaining a controlled passivity in her face. But there are strong hints of bitterness in the break up songs, and she has mastered the art of the single tear slipping down the cheek. During her songs, she usually remains quite still, making the roving camera do all the work. Jordan, however, is bouncing around throughout the film. He frequently resorts to speak-singing in order to add a bit of colour to his character.

For all its time and memory tricks, this is not Memento redivivus. Still, it does stand as a real oddity of cinema. It’s clearly intelligently directed and imaginatively adapted for film. There are beautiful renditions of brilliant songs. But it’s a unique little beast that, with its niche appeal, can only really remain a cinematic curio.

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Tim Bano

Tim is a freelance arts writer and theatre critic. He writes regularly for Time Out, The Stage and other publications. He is co-creator of Pursued By A Bear, Exeunt Magazine's theatre podcast.

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