Femme review | A tense, complex thriller

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Writer/directors Ng Choon Ping and Sam H Freeman turn their BAFTA-nominated short into a fully-fledged thriller – here’s our Femme review.

Taking the 2021 short and turning into an even darker, more morally tangled tale, Femme is a consistently tense thriller. Putting LGBTQ+ characters at the heart of a noirish plot, the film examines the various masks that people wear when it comes to the expression of self, gender and sexuality. It’s also simply a compelling drama fuelled by the outstanding performances of Candyman's Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and 1917's George MacKay.

Stewart-Jarrett stars as Jules, a drag queen whose career and confidence is ruined by a homophobic attack. Said attack was perpetrated by Preston (MacKay) and his group of hyper-masculine friends. When Jules runs into Preston at a gay sauna, he realises there may be a way to infiltrate the deeply closeted man’s life to get revenge.

What Femme captures excellently early on is the absolute joy of a good drag show. The lights are colourful, backstage is bustling, and there’s an atmosphere of complete acceptance. Here we meet Jules and his friends/roommates Toby (John McCrea) and Alicia (Asha Reid). Together they share a spacious London apartment – one that’s honestly slightly distracting. The rent must be astronomical. But on a creative level, their free and spacious place works to counter Preston’s world, one that’s always crammed full of oppressive and forced masculinity.

Those worlds aren’t particularly compatible, and so most of Femme's tension is created when one of them enters the other’s space. Jules has to dress differently just to avoid violence from Preston’s friends, and watching Stewart-Jarrett act as someone who’s desperately trying to pretend to be what he’s not is suspenseful. There’s a constant fear that he might be found out.

While the idea that a homophobic person is actually closeted is something of a cliche, MacKay’s character has a lot more depth than that. He’s painted initially as a clear-cut villain, but as we get to know him we get to see the cracks in his mask. MacKay does an excellent job of being very cagey, but also with a level of vulnerability that shines through. This is a very different type of character for the actor, who’s perhaps best known for his leading role in 1917, and it shows that he can easily play an unpredictable and violent loose cannon.

Neither of the leading characters, which Femme dutifully keeps its focus on, are two-dimensional. As the story progresses and the pair become more entangled, we find there are parts of Preston that we might be able to sympathise with. Similarly, as Jules starts to enact his plans, he makes some morally questionable decisions. The ending to it all feels a bit inevitable, but it’s a tension-filled journey towards that point with some interesting twists and turns as the characters develop.

It’s not an easy thing to take an already brilliant short film and turn it into a feature. With Femme, Ng Choon Ping and Sam H Freeman have taken some amazing talent and a tense, complex script and created something quite excellent.

Femme is out in UK cinemas on 1st December 2023.

Read more: When three George MacKay films hit UK cinemas on the same day

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