Adapting James Baldwin's 1974 novel, Barry Jenkins follows up the Oscar-winning Moonlight (2016) with another artful - but more fraudulent feeling - narrative of African American male victimhood. Here the setting is 1970s Harlem, where a young couple, Tish and Fonny, are starting to make a life for themselves. Childhood friends, the pair's bond has turned to romantic love, and Tish is expecting their child. But any potential for happiness is interrupted when Fonny is falsely accused of rape and incarcerated pending sentencing.
An avowed admirer of Claire Denis, Jenkins demonstrates her influence in the attention that he pays to ambience in If Beale Street Could Talk. With Moonlight cinematographer James Laxton again at the helm, the film boasts striking images that, at their best, create a hypnotic quality with the addition of Nicholas Britell's jazz score.
Unfortunately, also like Denis, Jenkins sometimes has problems dramatising his material and the fragmentary, nonlinear structure inhibits involvement here. Many of the interactions simply fail to convince. A crowd-pleasing argument between the protagonists' parents - in which his holy roller mother (Aunjanue L. Ellis) gets what's coming to her - is offensive, poorly acted, and painfully overpitched, while a late detour to Puerto Rico, where Tish's mother (Regina King) goes to track down Fonny's accuser, is particularly awkward. The occasional use of photographs to link Fonny's incarceration to the wider historical context of African American male suffering render the film a calculated, heavy-handed "Black Lives Matter" treatise.
Much of Baldwin's florid language (including Tish's narration) seems to have been preserved wholesale from the book. But, while arguably pungent on the page, spoken as dialogue it has an artificial air that grates more than it entrances, and neither KiKi Layne, as Tish, nor Stephan James, as Fonny, manage to overcome the posed fakery of the whole conception. There are scattered elements that engage in Jenkins' film, and a long scene between Fonny and his friend, Daniel (excellent Brian Tyree Henry, who gives the movie's finest performance), in which the pair talk about their experiences and limited options, proves a highlight. But coming after the carefully-crafted Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk must count as a considerable disappointment.
If Beale Street Could Talk is out in the UK on 8 February.