Like an awful herald of what could lie in wait as future filmmakers grapple with our ongoing viral nightmare, Stephen Daldry’s “Together” is an almost punishing watch. That it’s bearable at all is entirely because of the superlative acting skills of James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan as an unnamed couple forced to endure an extended London lockdown. In place of a plot, we get a setup: They can’t stand the sight of each other.
A yearlong pandemic diary embedded in a prickly domestic negotiation, the movie is essentially a two-person play set in the upscale kitchen of the couple’s comfortable middle-class home. Repeatedly breaking the fourth wall — perhaps to avoid breaking the crockery — the two address the camera in earnest monologues. While these can range from confessional to explanatory (like a lengthy ponder on the meaning of “exponential” when tallying Covid infections), they are almost always suffocatingly self-absorbed.
An agonizing opening scene lays out the pair’s practiced hostility (“I hate your face!” “I think of you as a cancer!”) and the bickering state of their union. She’s a Liberal of some privilege; he’s a Tory from a poor background. She works with a refugee charity; he has a highly profitable consulting business. Floating somewhere on the periphery is a young son, Artie (Samuel Logan), who’s supposedly the glue that keeps the couple quarantining together. A monologue from him might have gone a long way toward explaining his parents’ dysfunction.
The movie’s persistent squabbling is bad, but its too-raw reminders of pandemic trials are almost worse. The reports of denuded grocery stores and mask refuseniks; the paeans to an overworked Somali caregiver and a saintly nurse standing watch over a relative’s hospital bed. And by intermittently stamping the movie with a date and a U.K. death count, Daldry seems to chide us for caring about his characters at all, the fussing and fighting of the living rendered even more trivial alongside the bodies piling up off screen.
An awkward and uncomfortable experiment, “Together” unfolds with a staginess that rebuffs our involvement. Political lectures are never fun, and the movie’s bitterly angry attacks on government ineptitude and nursing-home deaths made me wonder if the writer, Dennis Kelly, needed a back rub. So it’s a relief when McAvoy’s character starts growing asparagus and an uneasy détente is reached: No one needs a plague tale whose arc refuses to bend toward hope.
Rated R for cruel language and cringeworthy sex talk. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes. In theaters.