Binge-r #111: Wanderlust + Equals
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All six episodes now streaming
Marital woes come with a juicy momentum in this entertaining British drama, which never slows down for sombre reflection when it can skip ahead to the next complication. The union of Joy and Alan Richards (Toni Collette and Steven Mackintosh) is so agreeable it’s sedentary: their sex life has fizzled out, a realisation that occurs to them after a failed comeback following her recovery from a nasty bicycle spill. When both stray, with some enthusiasm, they confess their mutual infidelity and conclude that an open marriage might be the answer. They have “the right to snack,” as Joy phrases it, knowing there’s a full meal waiting at home.
If that sounds delusional, Nick Payne’s six-part series is happy to lean into the concept. For all the arguments and agreements the couple share, there’s always a hint that they’ve run completely off the rails without realising. This makes for farcical humour and wary tension, and even when they’re initially content there are issues for their initial partners, not to mention the three children – two grown, one finishing high school – that Joy and Alan mistakenly decide to be open with. They reassure the flabbergasted offspring that they’re not part of an “epic suburban sex network”, but sex is an ever-present here as both a thorny question and a pleasurable answer.
The onscreen depiction is big on panting pleasure, but it also leads to some telling exchanges and subtle twists. There’s a suggestion that as much as they enjoy their strictly delineated dalliances the pair are addicted to the newness (and sometimes youth) of their side-pieces, while sharing their adventures turns out to be a mutual turn-on. All of this is filtered through Collette’s performance, which is finely balanced with self-doubt and supposed expertise – Joy counsels couples for a living, and the contrast between her professional technique and personal decisions is one of many lingering issues that the swift plotting leaves you to consider.
The show is set in the leafy middle-class suburbs of Manchester, and it widens to consider the needs of the couple’s children, as well as a colleague or two and a bi-curious neighbour. The odd moment of symbolism is on the nose – Joy literally has to get back on that bike – but I was down with nearly everything the show tried, apart from the idea that a teenage boy could successfully use his appreciation of Jonathan Franzen as a flirting tool. The direction is concise and unadorned, with a Gen X sensibility that adds to the swiftly adopted changes. It flips the dynamic so that Joy is adventurous and Alan is conservative, and most of all Wanderlust never fixates on the actual sex to the detriment of the characters. Joy and Alan get off, but they still want to get on.
Equals (Netflix, 2015, 101 minutes): In recent years science-fiction has been a valuable stepping stone for American independent filmmakers, with the likes of Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special) benefiting from the genre’s possibilities. At first glance Equals does the same for Drake Doremus, who made intimate studies of desire’s reality with 2011’s Like Crazy and 2013’s Breathe In. Set in a gleaming dystopian future, where emotions have been mostly removed from humans, Equals tracks the fraying of Silas (Nicholas Hoult), who is diagnosed with “Switched on Syndrome” and is shunned by his dispassionate workmates with the exception of Nia (Kristen Stewart). If that makes you think of Brave New World or Gattaca, you’re not alone – the setting is derivative and there’s a lack of tension in the sterile world where the authorities are feared but absent. What it gets right is the tenderness of physical discovery, told with washes of colour and quivering first touches. The attraction between Silas and Nia is overwhelming – if you’ve ever obsessed about Kristen Stewart, the camera’s close-ups here are suitably intoxicating.
New on Netflix: Before Three Billboards, Irish filmmaker Martin McDonagh landed in America with Seven Psychopaths (2012, 110 minutes), an idiosyncratic update of the black crime comedy starring Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken and Woody Harrelson; the cycle of violence that fuels sectarianism has brutal, evocative force in Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies (2010, 130 minutes), where adult children try to understand their mother’s hidden past.
New on SBS on Demand: Ang Lee’s breakthrough film, Eat Drink Man Woman (1994, 119 minutes) is a warmly nuanced comic-drama about a Taiwanese father whose three daughters upend traditional expectations; I, Daniel Blake (2016, 96 minutes) is Ken Loach’s scarifying depiction of how contemporary Britain breaks down the marginalised until they’re out of basic options.
New on Stan: I, Tonya (2017, 120 minutes) is a scattershot satire of American delusion and its comeuppance with Margot Robbie as the champion figure skater trying to escape her fate; The Paperboy (2012, 107 minutes) is a fever dream of conspiratorial Florida sex and murder that lets the cast – including Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, and John Cusack – run out of control.
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