Jessie Buckley and Riz Ahmed fight the laws of attraction in this near-future set drama in which love is a science
Dir: Christos Nikou. US. 2023. 113mins
If there was a test that could prove the compatibility of you and your partner, would you want to take it? This is one of the key questions prompted by watching Fingernails, a modest romantic sci-fi drama elevated by the chemistry of Jessie Buckley and Riz Ahmed. Apples director Christos Nikou’s second feature is set in a near-future in which couples can discover if they are meant to be together, which causes problems once Buckley’s character – a former school teacher who is already in a relationship that has tested positive for its viability. falls for her new coworker – who is part of an institute that helps lovers strengthen their bond. Breezy but thoughtful, the film satirises society’s myths about soulmates while wondering if there is something to the idea of “The One.”
A whimsical, metaphorical exploration of love’s absurdity
Fingernails has screened in Telluride and Toronto, soon making its way to the London Film Festival. Apple will open the film in the US on October 27, with the picture coming to the streaming platform November 3. Buckley and Ahmed provide star power for date-night audiences, but mixed reviews may dampen enthusiasm.
Anna (Buckley) lives with her long-term boyfriend Ryan (James Allen White) and, although she worries that the spark is gone, they have had their relationship scientifically tested, the results coming back 100% positive — meaning that they both love the other. (Participants can also receive a score of 50% — only one person in the relationship is in love — or 0%.) Looking for a job, and not having much luck with the schools where she has been applying, this teacher decides on a whim to start working at a love institute which coaches couples in how to have a stronger relationship so they can pass the test. Assigned to shadow fellow employee Amir (Ahmed), the pair immediately hit it off. But if she and Ryan tested positive — and people cannot have two soulmates — what does it mean that Anna is developing feelings for Ahmed?
Nikou, who co-wrote the screenplay, walks a thin line with his conceit, creating a world in which this test is foolproof but also leaving open the possibility that maybe it is not actually so all-knowing. Viewers are advised to approach Fingernails as a somewhat whimsical, metaphorical exploration of love’s absurdity. The filmmaker signals this intention by including some darkly comic ideas — the most notable being that the test is administered by having one of your fingernails ripped off so that it can be scanned along with your partner’s. (Also, people who score 100% receive a cheap-looking certificate for their trouble.) The wryly amusing moments continue once Anna and Amir start working with new couples, crafting ridiculous scenarios to increase their intimacy – including staging a fake fire in a movie theatre to see how they will react. Whereas other low-key sci-fi dramas take their central premise deathly seriously, Fingernails invites the audience to chuckle at it, recognising that Nikou is simply doing a modern riff on an old truism: love is not something you can measure.
Buckley and Ahmed have not had many opportunities to be romantic leads, but they are delightful as coworkers who share an instant rapport. Rooting for their clients to pass the test, Anna and Amir are optimists about finding love, their attraction based on mutual respect and similarly snarky senses of humour. Anna will eventually learn more about Amir — for instance, why does his live-in girlfriend Natasha (Annie Murphy) not know he has a gluten intolerance? — and Ahmed zeroes in on Amir’s melancholy air. Both actors are quite good at conveying their characters’ increasing longing for one another, although they dare not express their desire aloud.
As Anna’s disengaged boyfriend, White strikes a nice balance, playing Ryan as someone who clearly loves Anna but has grown too comfortable with their dull routine. Fingernails never makes their relationship seem disastrous, but it does suggest what is fundamentally flawed about the film’s compatibility test: a relationship is not something that you “pass,” but, rather, requires work on a daily basis to keep alive.
Fingernails’ themes may be a tad trite, but the storytelling’s unfussy elegance helps sell Nikou’s message about the messy vitality of true love. Along the way, the director skewers the conventions of romantic comedies — the couples at the institute are forced to watch Hugh Grant flicks as part of their regimen — while knowingly placing the levelheaded Anna and Amir in a sci-fi version of the much-mocked genre. The characters note that love is nothing like it’s shown in the movies, but Fingernails argues that maybe it can be, figuring out a way to subvert the traditional happy ending.
Production companies: Dirty Films, FilmNation Entertainment
Worldwide distribution: Apple TV+
Producers: Coco Francini, Andrew Upton, Cate Blanchett, Christos Nikou, Lucas Wiesendanger
Screenplay: Christos Nikou & Sam Steiner & Stavros Raptis
Cinematography: Marcell Rev
Production design: Zazu Myers
Editing: Yorgos Zafeiris
Music: Christopher Stracey
Main cast: Jessie Buckley, Riz Ahmed, Jeremy Allen White, Annie Murphy, Luke Wilson