Starring: Nadine Marshall, Idris Elba, Kai Francis Lewis
3 1/2 out of 5 *****
Second Coming is the debut film from Debbie Tucker Green, whose career up to now has been largely as a playwright (her latest play, Hang, starring Marianne Jean-Baptiste is currently showing at the Royal Court Theatre). Tucker Green first came to my attention after she adapted one of her plays, Random for Channel 4 in 2011. It wasn't only Tucker Green's words that shone, but also the story's lead, Nadine Marshall.
So it stands to reason that Tucker Green and Marshall would collaborate again for Second Coming. Marshall plays Jacqueline, who we first see in a hospital waiting room, a picture of pensiveness. We learn that she is pregnant, but her reaction clearly indicates that she doesn't view this as good news.
Jacqueline is married to Mark (Idris Elba), and they have an 11 year old son, JJ (Kai Francis Lewis). They're a working/middle-class family, who are in that awkward space of living above the poverty line, but only because they both work stressful, full-time jobs. Jacqueline is a benefit officer, as there's an unspoken knowledge that one mishap could leave her family in the position of those who come into her workplace, requiring help from the state.
Jacqueline's terror at falling pregnant is seemingly due to her having had past miscarriages, being told she was unable to have further children after giving birth to JJ, and that she and Mark have not had sex for months. The topic of abortion is raised, but Jacqueline seems to be unable to reconcile her situation to even consider it.
As the story progresses, the pregnancy hovers like a raincloud over the narrative, but doesn't subsume it. Much of the film shows the quotidian nature of family life; Mark sometimes coming home late from work (his job is a railway maintenance engineer), going to Jacqueline's parents for Sunday lunch, and their parenting of JJ.
The most heartening motif of the film is its normalisation of a diasporic black British experience. Film critic, Benjamin Lee commented how it was nice to see a black centred story that didn't concern drugs and crime. While I agree with him, one shouldn't assume that Second Coming doesn't involve race. The characters aren't bleached of their racial identity, but it's rendered in a very naturalistic way. They are fully aware of their place in society's pecking order, but on a day-to-day level, most black people aren't preoccupied with whiteness, or white people. The only times you see anything other than black skin on screen are in workplaces, and public areas.
As the lead, Marshall gives a wonderful performance. Emotionally paralysed by her plight, it takes discipline to portray someone going through turmoil, but unable to express it. It would have been very easy - especially acting opposite a renowned name as Elba - for her to try to do too much, but the role requires her to remain understated and inscrutable. But the performance never lacks purpose, and allied with Urszula Pontikos's cinematography, ensures that this is fully Jacqueline's story.
But that's not to minimise the supporting roles. Elba is impressive as Mark, who is well-meaning, but frustrated by Jacqueline's lack of openness around him, and shows that he's a strong actor first, and a sex-symbol second. Sharlene Whyte is also an actor to keep an eye on - as she has superb chemistry with Marshall - as her solicitous and plainspoken best friend, Bernie. There's also lovely turns from Larrington Walker and Llewella Gideon as Jacqueline's parents.
A special mention must be made for Kai Francis Lewis. It can be very difficult to find skilled child actors, but Francis Lewis is a huge talent in the making. The character of JJ is introverted and gentle, who has a penchant for nature - specifically birdwatching. And very much like his mother, he internalises a lot of his emotions. Arguably the most striking scene of the film is a volcanic row where Mark admonishes Jacqueline, but the camera is focused solely on JJ, and how he feels having to watch his parents argue. Francis Lewis stays beautifully still, anchored by his terror and sadness.
Tucker Green's screenplay works best in the scenes where the dialogue is peppered with Jamaican slang. Much like movies such as The Full Monty or Trainspotting, it's English, but not the English that you would hear on Downton Abbey. Jacqueline also has a skill for avoidance, and is given lines that underscore this, enabling her to derail searching questions about her pregnancy.
The final stretch of the story takes a twist that I won't reveal here, but you may already be aware of if you've read reviews of the film. It's a plot point that reframes everything that's occurred up to that point. I'm not sure if it improves the film, but it definitely adds an additional layer that, if nothing, is extremely intriguing.
It's a narrative swerve that will probably frustrate as many as it delights, but I'm loathe to impugn any filmmaker who tries to do something thought-provoking, instead of derivative.
Regardless, whatever one thinks of the ending, Second Coming remains an accomplished debut film from Tucker Green. Nadine Marshall is an actor who deserves a greater platform that she currently has, although comfort can be taken in the fact that as long as Tucker Green continues to work on screen, she's likely to have a place for Marshall. They could quietly turn out to be one of the best creative partnerships in the British cultural scene.
 - A much welcome blast from my television watching past.
 - Stephen Fry once referred to this as a "mongrel mouthful".