Not to be confused with the 2005 movie of the same name starring Cate Blanchett, Little Fish puts a twist on one of the those big films about two people in love told against a torrid backdrop of war, ditching raging conflict in favour of a global pandemic. In early 2021 this sounds very timely, but the story the film is based on is ten years old. In any case the “torrid backdrop” isn’t the focus here. This is a film for those in love with love.
The meet-cute is bare bones. Emma (Olivia Cooke) meets Jude (Jack O’Connell) on a beach. They stare at each, they smile at each other, they chat to each other, they’re clearly both instantly smitten. It is genuinely cute.
In traditional romantic love story style of the sort that comes in pink covers, he’s a buccaneering individualist, she’s in the caring professions. Photographer/vet – you can work out which is which.
Also in traditional romantic love story – or even Love Story – style, one of them is going to get ill and/or die, the sweeter the love, the deeper the loss.
The second big introduction is to the pandemic – NIA it’s called, Neuro-Inflammatory Affliction, a disease that’s wiping the minds of different people in different ways. Some just get a bit scatty, others forget so completely what they are about that there are bizarre effects – like the marathon runner who simply forgets to stop running. But for the most part NIA’s progress seems to mimic Alzheimer’s, a progressive loss of memory to the point where the identity of the sufferer begins to fall away – we are, to a large extent, our memories.
So of course one of these two lovely people is going to get NIA and the other is going to watch impotently, metaphorically offering up burnt offerings to the gods and reading all the books on the subject in an attempt to keep it at bay. The sufferer, meanwhile, is going to dissemble like crazy, hiding the effects of the disease’s progress via an escalating series of cribs, tricks, cheats and lies
Though Little Fish is interested in the lovers rather than the pandemic, around the edges director Chad Hartigan conjures up a pungent world of disinformation, fear and hysteria, quack cures and weird coalitions of the ignorant. Some of the superficialities are now familiar – people in masks – but most of it is a reminder that Covid-19, while bad, could have been a lot worse.
The other world Hartigan conjures is that of the indie romance – music, tattoos and big moments in small places. Jude asks Emma to marry him in a pet shop, where the two of them are watching the little fish that gives the film its title. It’s a goldfish, a creature not associated with a prodigious memory. A joke, surely, in a film not full of them.
This is a world of shallow-focus photography, which does double duty in suggesting both the warm, fuzzy and “us”-focused nature of the first burst of love, but also the soft edges of memory loss. Keegan DeWitt’s gentle, lilting score works the same territory. Most of the music in Little Fish has the treble turned down.
It’s set in Canada, I think, though the concentration on the two main characters is so tight that we could be almost anywhere. The acting is as it should be: intense and fierce, the more so, perhaps, because the film stands or falls on the performances. Which is another way of saying that not an awful lot happens, and what does happen plays out at its own unhurried pace.
Cooke – about to step into a role in the Game of Thrones sequel House of the Dragon (she’s not a million miles away in looks from Emilia Clarke) – will probably attract some Throners. But, be warned, ye Goths and other dark-clothed lovers of pandemic disaster fare, this is not the movie for you.
The film it’s closest to is another two-hander, Perfect Sense, in which Ewan McGregor and Eva Green played lovers being slowly deprived of one sense after the other. Barely seen and critically cold-shouldered, the 2011 film now seems ahead of its time. Anyone for a pandemic double bill?
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© Steve Morrissey 2021