Permission

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Permission
"Hall is one of the most capable performers of her generation and it's a delight to see what she can do with an intelligent script like this."

It's one of those idealised myths of Western culture: a couple meet at school or college, fall head over heels in love, marry and stay together for the rest of their lives. Sometimes, when it happens for real, it's obviously, wonderfully happy. On other occasions, we just assume it's happy because that's what we've been taught to believe, and maybe those involved assume that too. After all, they've nothing to compare it to.

Sex isn't the only thing that matters to a happy relationship, of course, but it's sex that comes up in discussion when sweet thirtysomething couple Anna (Rebecca Hall) and Will (Dan Stevens) are discussing their future plans with friends. Anna's friend Hale (David Joseph Craig) can't believe that she's never slept with another man and asks her if she hasn't wondered about what it would be like. They drink and joke and she admits to a little curiosity, and afterwards Will says that if she wanted to try, it really wouldn't bother him - after all, he knows she loves him - and she admits that she doewsn't think it would bother her, either, if he wanted to sleep with another woman. Just sex. Nothing complicated. They're sure about that future.

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The couple acknowledge, straight up, the wealth of cautionary tales society has produced about this kind of thing, but counterbalancing those they have the awareness that monogamy is less of an assumed norm in the gay community and that many people there seem to navigate the problems of more complex interactions without catastrophe. That said, they don't seem to give it much thought, or ask for advice, before plunging in. Anna meets shy young musician Dane (Fran├žois Arnaud) within mere hours of the decision being made, and neglects to tell him about her existing relationship. Though Will is no more forthcoming when he lets himself be picked up by confident older woman Lydia (Gina Gershon), it's pretty clear that she knows what she's doing, and figures out aspects of it before he does. Dane, however, is giddy as a schoolboy over the new woman in his life, and of course it becomes a thing, and it's clear that somebody is going to get hurt.

Whilst Permission is hardly an uncomplicated portrait of fully informed and consensual polyamory, it's a long way from the hypocritical mixture of soft porn and social censure that one finds in most cinematic musings on the topic, and there's one key reason for this: writer/director Brian Crano has not started from the assumption that people getting hurt is a bad thing. Well written romance films are usually as concerned with the individual emotional arcs of their characters as they are with the relationships they depict, and Permission is very much a film about growing up. With a wealth of relationships to explore (including that between the central couple's friends, who may be monogamous but are not short on problems), Crano is able to tease out and contrast key issues in the characters' lives and establish the difference between what seems to be perfect and what is simply a product of assumption, habit and inertia. He's also very alert to the differing social expectations of what men and women want out of life, and how that can constrain women's lives even whe nobody intends it to.

Hall is one of the most capable performers of her generation and it's a delight to see what she can do with an intelligent script like this. She's ably supported by Stevens, who wins audience sympathy in what might easily have been a less sympathetic role and gives Will real complexity. Gershon clearly enjoys being able to ham it up a bit but shows that she's able to deliver more subtle work when it's required of her. Arnaud is very effective in looking like a puppy whom somebody has kicked, which is all he really needs to do here, with his comparative simplicity being part of the point.

Although it's not without eroticism, Permission doesn't exploit its subject matter and it's as interested in the complexities of sex as in using it to titillate. Whilst Will's journey leads him to understand his sexuality in new ways, Anna's is ultimately more centred on finding out about who she is as a person. Sex is simply a means through which to start looking at the world in new ways.

Thoughtful films on this sort of subject are very rare, and Permission is one to treasure.

Reviewed on: 05 Feb 2018
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Permission packshot
A couple experiment with sleeping with other people and find it has unexpected effects on their lives.

Director: Brian Crano

Writer: Brian Crano

Starring: Rebecca Hall, Dan Stevens, Gina Gershon, Francois Arnaud, Morgan Spector, David Joseph Craig, Jason Sudeikis

Year: 2017

Runtime: 96 minutes

Country: US

Festivals:

Tribeca 2017

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