Nathan Gregory’s review published on Letterboxd:
In today's media landscape that often affords us the ability to consume any amount of media at any pace and in any order, it is becoming increasingly rare for a product to be rolled out with the same intention as Small Axe - especially one of this pedigree. The Queen's Gambit was dropped all at once and we devoured it gratefully. What the Constitution Means to Me was plopped on Amazon Prime with little warning or fanfare. I have yet to see a banner ad on Netflix in advance of any of its big movies this year. This isn't hurting anyone, but it does make us sit up and ask questions when Steve McQueen's Small Axe series of films come out a week apart from one another. HBO is one of the few non-broadcast networks still doing this, but Small Axe is comprised of isolated films, presumably with no narrative or character crossover. After the first two, my first question is whether or not this series is going to unfold in linear fashion.
Mangrove spanned a few years in the late 1960s and early '70s and Lovers Rock (named for a romantic-sounding style of reggae) takes place so early in the 1980s that it could easily be mistaken for the late '70s. With spontaneity and tenderness, McQueen (this time writing with Courttia Newland) studies the course of events at a house party that brings together new and old friends, as well as new and old enemies. It is a simple film that devotes large swaths of its running time to living in the room dedicated to dancing with the partygoers.
It's a sensual experience. The unvarnished wood floor that reverberates with stomps; the bare light bulb that is draped around a DJ's neck; the closeness of bodies during slower songs - women with their arms draped lazily around the mens' shoulders and the mens' hands caressing their partners' backsides; and the recorded sirens that fill the sirens while the DJs change records on their lone turntable. To see into that room with McQueen and his DP Shabier Kirchner's camera is to be in that room.
Lovers Rock is also a simple experience. Most characters all start from the same square one in hoping for a good night that might bring them someone to love. As their true colors show and divisions are made and connections and separations happen, Lovers Rock morphs into a somewhat observational mode, focusing on Martha and Franklyn (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn and Micheal Ward). Martha and Franklyn eventually take us out of party, but not before a stunning a capella sequence.
After the party, the film seems to be making a kind, modern statement on or about religion and/or spirituality, but it is not clear to me yet. All I know is the softly gorgeous shot of Martha returning home, casting shadows against a dainty wallpaper and a mounted crucifix. Martha is on cloud nine, and the same motif has just opened and closed her night. Are McQueen and Newland likening the evening to a break from the stresses of a certain strain of Christianity? Are they indicating that she spent a night in heaven but must now return to the trials and tribulations of earth? Maybe, maybe not. Whatever the message, it has to do with the power of new love and its true spiritual impact on a person. It elevates thought and rightly minimizes aches and pains.
Lovers Rock is purposefully small, and it makes one wonder if the film would be able to stand alone without the name or purpose of the series around it. As a snapshot of Black British people with West Indies heritage finding a space to freely express themselves and find hope and possibly healing, it is marvelous. It's placement after the hard road of Mangrove makes perfect sense, but we'll have to wait until next week to see how it fits before Red, White and Blue (there better be a good reason for the title not having an Oxford comma).