'Stars at Noon' review: Nicaraguan set romance grounded by passion and intrigue
Courtesy of A24
Reimagined with modern day sensibilities and a timely resonance, Claire Denis’ “Stars at Noon” revamps the angle presented in the 1986 novel. Originally set in Nicaragua during the Sandinista revolution of the early 80s, the 2022 iteration makes the interesting choice of updating it to the Covid period, where isolation runs rampant, tedious health checkpoints exist at every major city entrance, and people scurry in hotels behind plexiglass shields and masks. I usually loathe films that try integrating Covid into their plots, mainly because it’s careless and done without merit. But in “Stars at Noon,” it grounds the story and gives the plot considerable stakes, adding to the already mixed uncertainty that exists as Denis slowly gets her movie gelling.
This is a passionate romantic drama that touches on symbolic themes of sexuality and colonization in the 21st century and though it never earns its lengthy 140-minute run-time, watching rising stars Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn navigate the terrain Denis lays out for them creates enough goodwill to tag along for the ride. Intimate and at times painfully serene, “Stars at Noon” forces the viewer to ask themselves what the real worth of human companionship is as two people who should never be together, try figuring out how they’ll survive in a city that’s trying to kill them.
Qualley plays Trish, a freelance journalist struggling in the capital, Managua, and angering her editor back in the states (a brief John C Reilly) for failing to get scoops. Unable to get any travel or lifestyle articles in the can and public enemy No. 1 of the local authorities after publishing a harsh piece criticizing the rampant corruption that exists within the law enforcement ranks, Trish is reduced to loitering in lavish hotels, selling her body for a quick buck. She’s also tight with a local cop (Nick Romano) whom she seduces in exchange for continued press privileges.
One evening while lounging in the bar, things abruptly change when she meets a mysterious Englishmen named Daniel (Alwyn). He claims to work in the oil and energy sector though recent conversations seem to indicate something else is hiding beneath his charming demeanor. Still, Trish is enamored by Daniel’s sensibilities which is enough for her to stick with him as Costa Rican officials and CIA officers try unraveling his secrets. Josh Safdie, one half of the Safdie brothers directing duo, shows up in a featured role, playing an operative keen on figuring out what “trade” intel Daniel might possess, and he almost steals the entire movie.
“Stars at Noon” is easily one of the more accessible films in Denis’ filmography, lacking the type of deep philosophical pondering her “High Life” delivered a few years ago. That’s not to say her latest venture will entertain the masses, but it does have enough chemistry between the two leads that should keep them invested. Its slow start won’t do the movie any favors as the hazy political undertones don’t really start to manifest until about the hour mark. Once it does, however, Denis lets the actors run with the material, resulting in something that’s both visually alluring and deeply personal.
STARS AT NOON opens in select theaters and will be available digitally Friday, October 14th.