Review: Actors Sam Riley and Haley Bennett Take a Risk that Nearly Pays Off in Improvising She Is Love

Not being entirely familiar with the films of writer/director Jamie Adams (Bittersweet Symphony, Venice at Dawn), I don’t know exactly how often he leans into the practice of allowing his actors to largely improvise their dialogue with only a vague idea of where each scene needs to land. For years, that process was largely only used in comedies, but in more recent years (and thanks in large part to filmmakers like the Duplass Brothers and Joe Swanberg), it has been more commonly exercised in an attempt to find the emotional truth in dramas. Adams’ latest work, She Is Love, falls somewhere in between those two, setting up a rather amusing premise but then sending its two leads down an emotionally raw rabbit hole from time to time.

Haley Bennett (Cyrano, Till, and the upcoming Magazine Dreams) plays American literary agent Patricia on a work trip to England. She finds herself booked in an off-the-beaten-path country inn where there don’t seem to be any other occupants. All she wants is rest, but as soon as her head hits the pillow, she hears music coming from downstairs. When she goes to investigate the source of the electronic music, she finds Idris (Sam Riley) playing DJ. He was unaware there was anyone else staying there, but what makes the situation just a tinge more awkward is that these two had been married 10 years ago and haven’t seen each other since. Adding to the difficult coincidence, Idris (a former pop star, it turns out) runs the inn with his new significant other Louise (Marisa Abela), who is inconveniently put in the middle of this unwieldy situation.

This setup has a great deal of promise, without a doubt, but what follows is an exercise of Patricia and Idris falling back into a pattern with each other—it’s not exactly love but it’s tangentially akin to the comfort level that comes from knowing someone intimately for years. We spend most of the film watching them interact, learning about their best times as well as what it was that drove them apart. We find out about moments since their divorce where they should have reconnected momentarily (like when his father died) and why that didn’t happen. And most of these conversations feel like they are made up in the moment by the actors, with mixed results. We get hints that he’s a recovering alcoholic, but he starts drinking again after only a few hours in her presence.

What I’d be curious about is if the actors consulted each other about their characters’ shared history before the cameras started rolling, because there are times where they almost seem to be springing ideas on each other in the moment, and when that happens, you can almost see a momentary confusion in the other person’s eyes before they dive into these new details headfirst. The result is an odd rhythm between Bennett and Riley that manages to feel both exciting and wildly inconsistent, like we’re watching two people emotionally flail until they finally find their footing.

There are few things less interesting to me than watching two people get drunk together and get up to mischief. Drunk people are never as funny or entertaining as they think they are, and the result is little more than obnoxious behavior and hurt feelings. But there are few things more obnoxious than the Louise character, who is a would-be actor who has just been cast in her first major role and is having anxiety studying her lines. She rambles to anyone who will listen about her process for creating this character and delivering her lines, and most scenes with her feel like comedy filler rather than character development. Maybe we’re supposed to dislike her so that the chemistry between the two leads feels more palpable, and that’s fine. But in the end, I eventually just loathed her and her insecurities.

In general, I tend to like these actors immensely, largely because they are frequently taking chances in the roles they play, and that’s certainly the case with She Is Love. That boldness doesn’t always pay off, but it wouldn’t be a risk if it did.

The film is now playing in select theaters and is available on all major digital platforms.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.