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‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ Film Review: Barry Jenkins Grapples With James Baldwin’s Prose in Powerful Drama


The film shows glimmers of the artistry of «Moonlight,» but it also has difficulty translating Baldwin’s novel to the big screen
Faith in a very pure romantic attraction between two people was the dramatic core of Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-winning “Moonlight,” and that same faith is the animating principle of his much-anticipated follow-up “If Beale Street Could Talk,” a rich but very unwieldy adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel.
“Moonlight” originated in a story from the gifted playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, and Jenkins was able to make the narrative of that sensitive film his own by applying a poetic kind of stealth to the subjective visuals. But the Baldwin of “If Beale Street Could Talk” makes for a much more demanding and intimidating authorial basis for a movie.
Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James, “Race”) have known each other since they were children. Jenkins’s film, like Baldwin’s novel, is told from Tish’s point of view and moves backward and forward in time in a way that suggests puzzle pieces scattered out on a table.
Also Read: ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ Director Barry Jenkins on Why Showing Vulnerability Is ‘a Sign of Strength’
Tish is 19 years old and Fonny 22 when they first begin to love each other in a romantic, adult, and sexual fashion, and Jenkins begins his movie with a shot of them walking together. They stare into each other’s eyes and seem to get lost there, but that process is abruptly halted when we learn that Fonny has been put in jail for a crime he did not commit. “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass,” Tish says on the soundtrack.

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