Review: Unicorns – London Film Festival 2023 ★★★★★
Guest post by Carly Halse.
It’s a romantic drama, but not as you know it.
Unicorns begins with Luke (Ben Hardy) having a casual sexual encounter in a bleak field. Luke is a white, working class single dad, stuck in a world of greys. That is, until he tumbles head first down the rabbit hole (ok, opens a door next to the toilets in a restaurant) and meets Aysha (Jason Patel), a beautiful ‘gaysian’ queen commanding the stage at a bustling nightclub.
It’s not until later, after they have shared a charged kiss, that Luke is horrified to find out Aysha is also Ashiq, not the cis woman he believed her to be. Overwhelmed and scared, Luke tries to put the night behind him, only for Aysha to track him down at garage where he works, and offer him a job driving her to her lucrative dance gigs. And so, over many night-time car trips, their relationship tentatively and beautifully blossoms; slowly, haltingly, sweetly.
It’s not all glitter and rainbows though, the harsh realities of their differing cultural worlds challenging both Luke and Aysha. But Unicorns feels full of love, even in its darkest moments, thanks in large part to the performances of Hardy and Patel. There’s a wonderful chemistry between the two leads that really drives the plot even in its quietest moments – Hardy gives us a sensitive and haunting portrayal of a working class man, full of caged energy, while Patel gives a stunning performance as Aysha, charisma and charm personified. There are more great things to come from him in the future, there is no doubt.
The writing from James Krishna Floyd is deeply heartfelt, and it truly feels like a sensitive and honest depiction of the experiences of the South Asian LGBTQ+ community, and working class life in Essex. The direction from Floyd, alongside Sally El Hosaini, is both provocative and joyful, balancing both stories and their complex layers carefully. In particular, the use of colour and light is exceptional, from the harsh glare of the petrol station forecourt to the throbbing strobes at a private dance party. The first time Luke and Aysha meet they kiss under a fireworks-filled Diwali night sky…
The plot creates a world of fluidity – not just of sexuality, but gender, identity, religion, friendships and family. Luke’s family unit is being reformed and remodelled as his son’s estranged mother returns. Ashiq’s prayer in the first act of the film is quickly followed by a reminder from his friend that energy drinks are haram. Aysha explains to Luke the complicated relationships, friendships and entanglements in her dance community, which seem to be constantly shifting and changing. There’s a distinct lack of ‘labels’ throughout, as if to suggest they are, or could be, just temporary.
Unicorns asks us to consider the interplay between all aspects of our identity, and ultimately the joy that can be found in the truest, most authentic version of ourself – especially if we have someone to share it with.