It would be hard for any news item this year to be blown out of proportion as much as the time Faye Dunaway said the name of a film instead of the name of a different film. Sure, it happened on stage at the Oscars while announcing the winner of the most prestigious category of them all, but actually it didn’t matter. Not one tiny bit. Which didn’t stop it being literally the only news item in the world for the entirety of the next day. The BBC thrusted the headline at us in extra big type on their homepage, an honour usually reserved for actual tragedies, rather than a slightly unfortunate but mostly irrelevant mix-up. Maybe they were just thrilled to have a leading news item that didn’t contain the word Trump.
The fact that this was not a tragedy seemed to elude many people, presumably rich celebrity-types for whom this would in fact be the closest thing to actual tragedy that they could identify. (I joke.) People went ape-shit; accountants received death threats. And in all the furore over whether Moonlight or La La Land should have won the Best Picture Oscar, people seemed to forget the most important, objective fact: that it should actually have been Manchester by the Sea, or failing that, Arrival.
La La Land is a captivating technical achievement and a wonderfully fun, warm-hearted piece of cinema, but it’s also predictable, shallow and throroughly masturbatory. Well then, what of Moonlight? Moonlight was probably designed by robots from the future as the perfect piece of Oscar bait. In a year after Oscar was lambasted for its lack of minority representation, it’s composed entirely of minorities, a breathlessly moving tale of struggle and repression as a young black man comes to terms with the fact that he’s gay. Both intimate and epic, the film spreads itself over decades but with a narrow, character-driven focus and a small core of Oscar-worthy performances.
It’s heavily stylised, with dizzying camera movements and extreme close-ups that break all rules of mis en scene and leave you bewildered and disoriented. The opening scene is a simple dialogue between two men, but the camera spins around them as if filming a breakneck action sequence, struggling to keep focus on its actors, despite the fact that they’re essentially motionless. Intriguing certainly, if wholly unnecessary.
In keeping with the film’s themes, it’s shot as if truly bathed in moonlight. Vibrant shades of blue and purple intertwine with black shadow and skin. The film’s based on a play – In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue – and the cinematography plays up the visual aspect of this title. The colouring is gorgeous all round: gritty Oscar dramas often wash out the colour to add to the realism, but Moonlight isn’t afraid to amp it up, brash pastel strokes that serve to heighten the film’s reality. Dream sequences add to the feeling of surrealism – even magic – that pervades the film and bolsters the harsher aspects of the narrative. It’s an almost fairytale aesthetic that contrasts intriguingly with the downbeat plot.
It’s not perfect by any means. The relatively succinct running time and impressionistic focus makes it difficult for the film to tell a coherent story over such a long time period. It moves like a flip book, with snapshots in place of a flow: key events are implied, characterisation piecemeal, motivation sometimes erratic. Perhaps most frustratingly, the film’s pivotal mid-narrative scene feels truncated, if not rushed.
Still, there’s a whole world here that cinema may just be uncovering for the first time. Faces and stories and contexts that have been ignored or even suppressed in film. Like The Salesman, Moonlight thrives in finding connection. In building empathy for people we don’t know; by including us in that universal search for acceptance and belonging and love. Like its introverted protagonist, Moonlight says a lot without a lot of words – and in its final scenes, conjures a bittersweet, bewitching coda that will resonate for years to come.