The Last Five Years

Director: Richard LaGravenese (2015)

This likeable musical is a stagey adaption of Jason Robert Brown‘s Tony Award-winning show of the same name.

Set mostly in New York and told almost entirely in song, it’s worth seeing for a fabulously fresh and nicely nuanced performance by the hugely engaging Anna Kendrick.

She plays Cathy, a struggling actress whose five year relationship to writer Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) has come to an end.

We see the rise and demise of the ambitious, attractive and sexy couple. As Jamie’s career as novelist goes stratospheric, Cathy’s acting career stalls. As she suffers humiliating auditions, he is flattered and applauded at public readings of his work.

Tensions increase and as he parties with publishers in New York, she performs in summer seasons in Ohio; the US equivalent of starring in the cabaret at a Butlins holiday camp.

The narrative is divided in two strands alternating between his and her points of view, emphasising their differences.

Cathy’s songs begin at the end of the marriage and move backwards in time to the beginning of their romance. Jamie’s songs move from the start of the affair to the final parting.

As Cathy becomes increasingly happy and confident, Jamie becomes frustrated and disillusioned. The tone of their songs synchronise in the middle of with their joyous marriage vows before diverging again.

This clever construction has it’s advantages. The frequent switchbacks between the duo’s viewpoints create momentum and prevent the failure of the relationship to become a maudlin slog to the end of the film.

It enables us to see the complex dynamics at work and offer sympathy to them as individuals. There’s sadness, anger, regret, confusion, deception and infidelity – but also passion, love, sweetness, and support.

Against this very few other characters even speak and there are too few duets. This means for the majority of songs the non-singing partner must simply stand and stare.

This creates awkward moments such as when Jamie sings excitedly in anticipation of an intimate encounter and Cathy is forced to stare silently at him while prone on the bed.

The relationship begins in glorious bright colours and a frantic camera dizzy with passion. It ends in a muted palette of blues and greys in the apartment they shared, the camerawork is more composed and the tunes mournful. The fine cinematographer responsible is Steven Meizler who has worked a great deal with Steven Soderbergh.

There’s a valiant effort to open up the stage production to take advantage of the bigger canvas cinema offers. New York offers some lovely locations but the few exterior scenes set there seem rushed, resulting in moments of not great lip-synching.

Kendrick showcases an impressive singing voice and provides lovely moments of subtlety and a great adaptability in tone and range, being comic or serious as the role demands.

Her co-star gamely gives his all in trying to keep up – but his toothy, stagey playing burns the screen instead of illuminating it. It’s not a poor performance but an overcharged one.

Kendrick’s career has included a role in the Twilight franchise and holding her own against George Clooney but she has yet to be a household name. Maybe, hopefully, this performance will push her towards a wider and much deserved recognition.