Animals: a debauched comedy drama about two directionless female friends

A lack of authenticity works against the evident chemistry of leads Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat.

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In the film version of Emma Jane Unsworth’s novel Animals, about two directionless female friends within spitting distance of 30, the writer herself has shifted the action from Manchester to Dublin. The reasons for this are economic (it’s an Irish-Australian co-production) but it can’t hurt to set the movie in the same city as Sally Rooney’s wildly successful debut novel Conversations with Friends, which also traces the destabilising effect of outsiders on a close-knit friendship. Laura (Holliday Grainger), red-haired and ruddy-cheeked, fancies herself as a novelist but has only produced ten pages in as many years. Her housemate Tyler (Alia Shawkat), glamming it up like a young Elizabeth Taylor in shades and headscarf, tempts her chum with wine or worse while she’s trying to write.

When Laura becomes infatuated with a concert pianist named Jim (Fra Fee), Tyler takes it upon herself to dampen her ardour with put-downs: “He has the shoes of an undertaker and the smile of a despot,” she sneers. Ignoring this, Laura proposes to Jim and tries to square her ideals with her marital plans. “My feminism is about blazing a new way through old traditions,” she argues, shortly before flirting with Marty (Dermot Murphy), a bad-boy poet who runs a literary salon. Watching from the sidelines and fearing for their friendship, Tyler rolls her eyes theatrically and wonders where her own life is going. “When did everyone get so serious?” she sighs, channelling Kristen Johnston as the dogged party-girl Lexi Featherston in Sex and the City, who plunged to her death after asking: “Whatever happened to fun?”

It’s this air of familiarity that makes Animals not such a rare beast, despite the leads’ evident chemistry. Dramatic flashpoints that tend here toward melodrama were handled with greater understatement in Frances Ha and Daphne, two superior studies of floundering young women. Animals has some acute touches of its own (the €20 note that has been used so often for recreational purposes that it’s impossible to flatten out) and a steady supply of fizzing one-liners, even if few of them would pass muster in an episode of Broad City.

Laura and Tyler quote Heathers and swan around like Thelma and Louise, though there’s no indication that they realise they’ve pinched a joke from Bridesmaids (“I’ll be your matron of dishonour”). A trip to see Laura’s repressed sister in her suburban paradise is lifted directly from Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. And in the film’s central metaphor, which sees the characters as animals in search of safety, the director Sophie Hyde trespasses on the terrain of Andrea Arnold, who in all her work, but especially Red Road and Fish Tank, insists on a feral animal world indivisible from the human one, and supports the thesis with more than just a few cutaways to an urban fox.

When Animals was published in 2014 it was described as “Withnail for girls”, but she who lives by the lighter fluid dies by it, too, and the comparison is not in the newer film’s favour. The drunks in Withnail and I had their dole cheques to sustain them, lending that picture a crust of period detail to go with the squalor. But Animals, set in an underpopulated, ad-campaign Dublin, has neither. These supposedly penniless friends take minicabs everywhere and seem not to have heard of Uber or buses. Watching Withnail and I it felt as if the screen would be tacky if you reached out and touched it, whereas the alley in which Laura and Jim have sex behind the bins looks so spick-and-span, and so tastefully lit, that it’s sure to become a romantic rendezvous for anyone planning a weekend in Dublin.

The debauchery on screen sometimes feels like an overcompensation for a lack of authenticity. Near the start of the film, Tyler steals a clip-top glass jar, the sort routinely used to store pasta or rice, except this one is filled with rocks of MDMA. She and Laura spend the rest of the movie dipping their fingers in it, but Animals is unrealistic in wanting to have its molly and eat it. There’s micro-dosing and then there’s rendering oneself insensible, or at the very least too wrecked to come up with this sort of wise-acre dialogue at screwball speed. 

Animals (15)
dir: Sophie Hyde

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 02 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special