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Only Lovers Left Alive — film review

I have been excited to see the latest Jim Jarmusch film for months. It has two of my absolute favourite actors, Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, and a premise (essentially, the lives of two kooky vampires) that I didn’t really need selling to me.

I was surprised at how few cinemas were screening it, but fortunately I live quite close to a cinema that screens off-piste films, so I managed to catch it this weekend.


The film is a shade over two hours, and it takes its time. It is not plotless, but rather it has the pacing of a meditative biopic, exploring the slow, languid lives of the main couple Adam and Eve (Hiddleston and Swinton), which at the start are separate, but entangled, as we later learn. Hiddleston, a reclusive musician in Detroit with an impressive collection of stringed instruments, has stopped the clock for several decades. Whilst Eve has a shiny white iPhone, Adam wires together 1970s’ electronics to make his own webcam. He dwells, has become despondent, bordering on suicidal. He is a Romantic in the early-nineteenth-century sense. Eve, on the other hand, roaming Tangier freely, has a home filled with books in various languages, of various periods. Both surround themselves with their chosen mascots as external manifestations of the accreted memories of lives centuries long. When one has to move, the wrench is evident: Eve takes a mass of books with her to Detroit, and finding Adam a new instrument is a priority when they return to Tangier.

The first section of the film, before the arrival of Eve’s ‘sister’ Ava (Mia Wasikowska) is a meditation on how such lives can be structured so that they still, more or less, function. There is a sense of connection, a loose ‘family’ of vampires, in Tangier, with Eve visiting an ageing Kit Marlowe, played with much humour by John Hurt. In Detroit, Adam “sends out” his music through a “zombie” (human) agent, Ian. What might be tedious is instead sumptuous. Hiddleston is a great mirror for Swinton. Both are lean, angular, and yet capable of being voluptuous in a way that verges on being predatory. The early part of the film is captivated by how these two move within the world, occupying space whilst being otherly.

Adam’s Romanticism, his self-absorption and misanthropy, are saved from appearing teenaged by the way in which Ava manages to shake them up. Like a teenager wreaking havoc at her parents’, she is loud and raucous, demanding, physically boisterous, and constantly on the look out for the intoxicants (blood, in this case). The disturbance is, in a way, regenerative, but can only be allowed to go so far. After she kills (“drinks”) Adam’s agent, she is unceremoniously turfed out on, never to be heard from again. She has done enough, though, in dragging Adam out into the world where he can see the echo of his music, feel reconnected to the “zombie” world again.

Although the character is a wonderful idea in principle, Wasikowska hits a false note, I think, casting-wise. The film also has some shades of political preachiness to it, talking about human’s contaminating their blood, and whether “the water wars” have started yet. These are easy to brush aside, though, because Hiddleston and Swinton are both wonderfully controlled and yet wonderfully fluid. Their performances are fantastic, and the visual of them together as yin-and-yang throughout brings a common thread that keeps the film moving.

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