In movies as in life, headcount tells a story. After the 2008 financial crisis, producers in flight from large casts instead made the likes of All Is Lost, a single-actor tour de force for a solo Robert Redford. For the first wave of films shot under Covid restrictions, things have only been a little more expansive.

The Netflix romance Malcolm & Marie duly arrives with a cast of two — a stripped-back production made last summer in the time of eye-popping insurance premiums. The stars are achingly of-the-moment too: Gen Z polymath Zendaya and John David Washington, last seen in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, cast as an aspiring actress and successful director, returning to a luxe modernist beach house after the premiere of his new movie. The style is dizzyingly high, shot in black and white, his slim-cut suit and her foil dress like a Vogue spread come to life.

A friend — a film-lover — told me recently how much they were dreading Malcolm & Marie, a movie of assertive cool, with a plot that doubles as couples therapy and Hollywood insider story. I can only repeat what I told them. I know. But the movie — a portrait of a relationship spilled across the hardwood floor — is both a little silly and thrillingly red-raw, as good films often are.

Director Sam Levinson (Euphoria) sets up his two-hander like a dance movie or boxing match, the spotlight flipping between stars. Washington goes first, grooving to James Brown’s “Down and Out in New York City”, back from his big night on top of the world. What becomes apparent, however, is that Marie helped put him there. Yet somehow he forgot to thank her while introducing his movie earlier. As anyone who has been half a couple will know, from such forgetfulness a war can grow. One is the loneliest number — two is where the trouble starts.

Washington is excellent, Zendaya a lightning bolt. The film business is an invisible third party, the satire bold and funny. But it’s the drama that keeps us hooked, like neighbours with a glass to the wall. For all the ultra-modernity, the ghost of John Cassavetes — maestro of domestic strife — would not disapprove.


On Netflix from February 5