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Nocturnal is a film that convinces audiences it is one type of story before pulling the rug out from under them. Beginning in a place that feels dangerous and troubling, the drama quickly shifts into something thematically rich, compelling, and almost classical.
The film centres on 30-something Pete (Calm with Horses’ Cosmo Jarvis). He is a brooding quiet man working as a painter and decorator in the seaside British town in Yorkshire where he was born. Outside of his job, he spends his days either down the local pub or seducing women. One day, while chatting up a receptionist at the school where he is painting, he is transfixed by 16-year-old schoolgirl, Laurie (the Irish Lauren Coe, The Devil’s Doorway).
Pete begins to watch the lonely teenager recently relocated to the sleepy town, spending evenings observing the student run laps around the school’s racetrack. While initially she calls him out for being a creep – something in line with viewer’s initial suspicions about the enigmatic man – in a moment of vulnerability, she takes him up on his offer to go for a drive with him. Together, they embark on night-time adventures – walks on the beach, arcade visits – as viewers come to learn Pete’s true motives for wanting to spend time with the teen.
We will not spoil the big reveal, which comes at the end of film’s first act. Essentially, the drama is split into three sections – each marked by information either revealed to the audience or the characters – something which gives this atmospheric slow-burn character study a propulsive energy.
As Nocturnal is a character study, the two central performances needed to be of the highest calibre. Thankfully, Jarvis and Coe are more than able for what is required from them. Jarvis, a musician who burst onto the film scene in 2016 with Lady Macbeth, has had a big 2020 despite Covid. Between his big break, this year’s Calm with Horses and now Nocturnal, he is established himself as the go-to actor for playing characters so brooding and macho they border on dangerous.
That said, he is also able to imbue the people he inhabits – who often struggle to articulate and express themselves – with a sensitivity and vulnerability as well, just brimming below his hard exterior. In a way, he is almost Brando-esque. Indeed, the best scene in Nocturnal is a long close-up on his face – one which unveils the film’s major turning point. In real time, we see his manly outer shell disintegrate, revealing the scared child underneath.
Coe is just as good playing a character with duelling sides to her personality. She is very likable, boasting a sharp sense of humour, as well as a sweet innocence. That said, Coe also sells to viewers that she is a young woman on the verge of trouble. She is unhappy in her new surroundings with her single mother (Sadie Frost, Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and is coping by dabbling in underage drinking and drugs and seeking connection by getting into cars with strange men. It is to the two actors’ great credit that viewers care about these flawed characters and the audience take pleasure when their mutual connection helps them both grow as people.
Nocturnal may frustrate viewers that get hung up on the fact the plot hinges on Pete not revealing a key piece of information to Laurie. That said, Jarvis, as well as co-writer and director Nathalie Biancheri, takes the time to lay out the reasons why Pete cannot bring himself to utter the truth even as it causes great pain to himself. Meanwhile, the moody direction – filled with silhouettes and night-time landscapes lit by the fuzzy lights of the seaside town – only adds to the shadowy, secretive nature of the story, and the 84-minute running time means the movie never outstays its welcome.
As well as being a great little calling card for its stars, Nocturnal signals more interesting work is to come from first-time fiction filmmaker Biancheri. Already set to make a second feature titled Wolf, with George MacKay and Lily-Rose Depp, we for one cannot wait to see it.