‘Together’ Bears Witness to Britain’s Lockdowns
LONDON — In “Together,” Sharon Horgan and James McAvoy play a couple in meltdown. And then the pandemic begins.
Ten minutes into the film, which debuts in theaters in the United States on Aug. 27, the unnamed female protagonist (Horgan) tells her partner (McAvoy) that he is the worst human alive.
“You’ve got the same level of charm as diarrhea in a pint glass,” she says.
“Lockdown’s going to be hard then,” he responds.
The drama, written by Dennis Kelly and directed by Stephen Daldry (“The Hours”), begins on 24 March 2020, the day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Britain’s first coronavirus lockdown. It unfolds, claustrophobically, over the course of a year in the couple’s home, which they share with their young son.
As well as taking a wide view of the virus’s deadly impact — captions mark the rising death toll in Britain, from 422 in the first scene to 126,284 in the last — “Together” also zooms in on the disintegration and tentative rebuilding of a relationship. It’s sad, but also scabrously funny — “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” with added hand sanitizer. There’s shouting and crying, reminiscing and makeup sex, panic buying, jostling for vaccines and shocking, visceral grief.
Horgan said in a phone interview that the film was, on one level, an exercise in bearing witness, in particular to the “hidden trauma” of those families who lost loved ones in nursing homes. More than 39,000 nursing home residents in England died with the virus between April 2020 and March 2021, according to a study by the Care Quality Commission, a government agency. For many of those people, because of visiting restrictions and staff shortages, it was a lonely death.
In “Together,” the mother of Horgan’s character moves into a nursing home at the start of the pandemic. “She’ll be safe there, right?” the daughter says. In the following scene, her mother is on a ventilator.
Horgan said she felt “an enormous responsibility” in telling the story of what happened in Britain’s nursing homes. “We were incredibly shocked by it as a country, but the specific experience that families were having — of not being able to say goodbye, of watching loved ones die on FaceTime — people felt like they weren’t seen,” she said. “We wanted people to feel the pain of it.”
The drama was filmed in London over 10 days in April this year, and was broadcast here by the BBC in June, in the same week that the government delayed the lifting of restrictions because of a surge in the Delta variant of the virus. As it premieres in the United States, just over half of Americans are fully vaccinated, but the long-term effects of the pandemic — physical, psychological and financial — are still being felt.
“I’ve never written anything as immediate as this,” Kelly said in a phone interview. The script required little research, beyond observing day-to-day events, he added: “It’s the one event we’ve all been through.”
Perhaps that’s why a number of recent films have tackled the strains of life in a pandemic. “Locked Down,” starring Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor, throws an improbable heist into its story of a bored, bickering couple. “Lock Down Love” and “The End of Us” play out as more straightforward romantic comedies, in which being forced apart or together makes couples reassess. If “Together” stands apart, it is because fury and horror at what is happening in the wider world run in parallel to the central love story.
Writing the movie was a cathartic experience, Kelly said. “There are a lot of people out there who are really angry. They lost people, and they know they died alone,” he said. “We still haven’t got anywhere near processing what we’ve been through.”
Before Kelly approached Horgan about starring in “Together,” she had little interest in making a lockdown film: She had already turned down scripts based on the pandemic, she said. In the shows she was working on, including the BBC comedy “Motherland” and the second series of Aisling Bea’s “This Way Up,” the current circumstances were more or less glossed over, she added. Then she read “Together.”
“I could see it was really important,” Horgan said of the script. “Of course, it’s rooted in Covid. But it transcends that, as a voyeuristic, in-depth X-ray of a relationship.” For that reason, Horgan doesn’t think people will feel fatigued by the events of last year and a half while watching it. “If it was just related to the pandemic, you couldn’t watch an hour-and-a-half of it,” she said.
It helped that Horgan and Kelly are old friends. Horgan grew up on a turkey farm in Ireland, but has lived in London since the early 1990s, when she and Kelly met performing in a youth theater production. Years later, they bumped into each other in a pub. Horgan was in her late 20s and working at a job center; Kelly mentioned he’d written a play, called “Brendan’s Visit.” The next day, Horgan called and convinced him to put it on.
“She was unbelievably driven,” said Kelly, who went on to win the Tony Award for Best Book with “Matilda the Musical” in 2013. “If it weren’t for Sharon, there’s no way I’d have been a writer.”
The pair started writing together and created “Pulling,” a cult comedy about three 20-something female housemates, which debuted on the BBC in 2006. Watching it now, Horgan’s character, Donna, seems like a godmother to Fleabag from Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s 2016 TV hit, as well as the many chaotic, honest portrayals of womanhood that have followed, but at the time there was no one like her on television.
If “Pulling” was based on Horgan’s 20s, “Catastrophe,” the dramedy she co-wrote and starred in with Rob Delaney about a couple who get pregnant after a one-week stand, was based on her 30s: She and her now ex-husband Jeremy Rainbird had been together for six months when she found out she was expecting a daughter.
Now, she is working on the third part of her loose trilogy based, as she described it, on the “life cycle of a woman.” It will encompass turning 50, divorce and watching her children grow up, she said.
Horgan spent lockdown in London, with her two teenage daughters, who were “like caged animals,” she said. “So as a separated family we had to negotiate that, and make that work,” Horgan said. “It was intense.”
The boundaries between her life and work have always been porous, Horgan said. “I don’t think I give too much of myself to my work; my work gives an awful lot to me, if I’m honest,” she said. “I’ve never really given away something incredibly personal that I haven’t felt better for having got it off my chest,” she added.
When it came to rehearsing “Together,” in April, Horgan’s own experiences came pouring out.
“Everyone was sharing stories, not just about Covid, or lockdown, but about relationships,” she said. “The emotion of it felt within arm’s reach.”
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