When it comes to capturing on-screen horniness well, it’s about more than physical intimacy. It’s also about the atmosphere and body language between the actors. Those two elements are one thing that Unicorns, the new film co-directed by Sally El-Hosaini (The Swimmers) and James Krishna Floyd, does quite well. The opening scene alone is a textbook example of well-crafted carnality that simmers off the screen.
Mechanic Luke (Ben Hardy, EastEnders) walks into a drag club, immediately feeling smitten by performer Aysha (newcomer Jason Patel). As Aysha begins her show, the camera captures both Luke’s euphoric gazes and Aysha’s movements. The kaleidoscopic lighting from David Raedecker’s cinematography amplifies the mood. When Luke realizes Aysha isn’t the cisgender woman he thought he was during their initial fling, he feels immediate apprehension. Yet, his face after this revelation shows he’s as curious as he is shocked.
The looks of romantic yearning given by both people evolve past their chance encounter in this simmering cross-cultural tale of two broken souls repairing each other’s lives. Even the same neon lights that enclosed Aysha during her first performance follow her and Luke wherever they roam. They first settle on their relationship as a business proposition where Luke chauffeurs Aysha to her performances at nighttime so he can make extra cash. But the romantic tension and yearnful glances remain.
Luke’s rampant feelings of romanticism, vulnerability, and befuddlement live in a career-best Ben Hardy’s expressive eyes. Meanwhile, Jason Patel provides zest and magnetism as the similarly frail Aysha. Aysha’s charismatic, self-assured persona masks a searing, underlying melancholy. Proud as Aysha is to be a drag queen, she’s still rattled by constant online harassment as well as antagonism from those within the “Gaysian” drag queen community. Similar to Hardy’s performance, the susceptibility Aysha feels in her day-to-day life lives in Patel’s eyes.
Although Aysha is the one that thrusts Luke into her neon-drenched world, bringing literal and figurative color into the bleached gray within Luke’s bleak, working-class environment, thankfully, she’s still put on equal footing with Luke in terms of backstory. When we see her life as Ashiq, the man behind the persona, the story goes into some more heavy places as she struggles to connect with her conservative Muslim family.
The screenplay by co-director James Krishna Floyd sufficiently covers as much thematic ground as possible while, much like with Sally El-Hosaini’s previous feature The Swimmers, Unicorns immensely thrives on its reliance on visual storytelling. Scenes like the ones where the camera captures Luke and Aysha romantically gazing at one another, making the viewer wonder whether they might physically consummate their feelings, say plenty in ways that dialogue isn’t needed. Even a scene involving an emotional touching of hands accompanied by a serene cover of Lykke Li’s “I Follow Rivers” speaks powerful volumes.
As a massive fan of that song, I’d give it masterpiece points just for its cover’s inclusion. But to do that would neglect the heart wrenchingly transcendent leading performances and poetic cinematography that really bring this engaging meditation on desire and sexual/gender fluidity to life. From the first frame to the last, Unicorns will have you hooked to the screen.
This review is from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Unicorns is currently seeking U.S. distribution.