Laura is 32 (Holliday Grainger) and has spent the last decade writing a novel, and still only achieved ten pages of content. It’s about a spider caught in its own web and the woman – one in love with the idea of being in love – who tries to rescue it. An analogy for the ages it has to be said. Laura lives with her best friend, Tyler (Alia Shawkat) who learns of her father’s death at the start of Animals (and just prior to her thirtieth birthday). While we never learn much more, it’s safe to assume there is no love lost there.
Taking its inspiration from the pages of Emma Jane Unsworth’s Manchester-based novel of the same name (she adapted her own work for the screen), the film plays out like a long extended night out complete with wraps of coke, gallons of Sauvignon and several brain-mushing hangovers. As for plot, there isn’t much of one per se as Laura and Tyler navigate their drunken, oft directionless way through life and the pressures that society places upon women (and ergo themselves) to conform to this ideal model of womanhood, i.e. successful, a wife, a mother, settled, and that darn necessity to ‘behave’.
Gladly, neither do, and what could have been a one-note comedy about women seeking love – Laura flirts with it briefly after meeting talented pianist Jim (Fra Fee) – children, marriage and ‘finding their way’ actually becomes that little bit darker. Do women have to settle for all of these things if they’re not deemed successful in a career? This film says nope, and acts instead as a celebration of women, their flaws – bad decisions and all – the complexities of female friendship and a glorious defiance against expectation.
While the novel’s location is replaced by the fair city of Dublin – Manchester is represented in the form of screenwriter Unsworth and Grainger – it loses nothing as the Irish capital is a wonderful alternative, fusing art, nightlife and creativity, and is just as inspirational as the themes it presents. It also acts as a perfect city buffer/juxtaposition to the suburbs; a place which has no sound; “they sell it as peace but really it’s death.” The recurring images of foxes and cats also fail to be seen in the suburbs – animals which nod not only to the film’s title but also act as visual representations of our leading ladies; on the prowl, sometimes feral, independent creatures surviving.
There’s a wonderful moment when Laura, Tyler and Marty the Poet (Dermot Murphy) are standing against a wall outside of a house and he asks the question: “What’s an animal’s primary need?” All three answer differently – food, sex and safety. That’s what the film is about, searching for your primary need outside of expectation, looking for shelter within yourself and longing to be exactly who you are without of all the exterior noise, whether that be ‘society’ or the unsolicited opinion of your best bud.
The film depicts loneliness and the pathos that goes with it in a compelling way; as a fight for independence and inspiration while embracing hedonism.. It’s funny and furious and led by a couple of splendid performances. Grainger proves she has more than (lovely) cheekbones and a pout to her repertoire and quite the emotional dexterity to inhabit a leading role and Shawkat, who is widely known for more comic roles brings a poignancy to Tyler’s acerbic wit. The character is a staunch feminist who refuses to acknowledge how lost she actually is, while ensuring her thoughts on everything are expressed and heard. There’s even an old Hollywood glamour to her character and her costumes (gorgeously designed by Renate Henschke), as if she is lost in time in this, a delightful depiction of modern femininity.
Animals is a breath of fresh air. It depicts fully rounded characters who are empathetic and credible in a current climate where women are having to defend their rights to choose how they live. It’s an insightful, fun and defiant celebration of female friendship and creativity (made by a largely female crew under Sophie ’52 Tuesdays’ Hyde’s direction), finding your place in the world and not settling. Emma Jane Unsworth’s next novel is called Adults. Although not a sequel, perhaps the animal phase comes after tween, coming-of-age with full maturation (allegedly) hitting at, say, 40.