For her intriguing feature-film debut, “Second Coming,” playwright Debbie Tucker Green poses a bold question — what if a modern-day, middle-class British woman found herself miraculously pregnant? — and then takes the even bolder step of having her characters hardly ever directly address it. Offering a fine showcase to a very fine cast (Nadine Marshall, Idris Elba, Kai Francis Lewis), Tucker Green certainly isn’t shy about testing her audience’s patience. And while she can sometimes get a bit too enamored with her own moody, elliptical atmospherics, there’s clearly a unique imagination at work here, and her film’s final shots offer worthwhile rewards for those who are willing to stick with it.
Though its title and one-line synopsis give viewers an idea of what to expect, plot-wise, “Second Coming” takes at least half of its running time to lay its opening hand on the table. With chapters demarcated by the weeks for which protagonist Jackie (Marshall) has been pregnant, the film opens on Jackie’s tense lunch date with a coworker (Sharlene Whyte). Though they never refer to the procedure by name, we quickly come to understand that Jackie is asking advice on whether or not to have an abortion, and only gradually realize why.
After the birth of her now-11-year-old son, Jerome (Francis Lewis), Jackie was told she’d never be able to conceive again. What’s more, it’s been months since she last slept with her husband, Mark (Elba), and she has no other lovers.
As mentioned, the film takes quite a long time to parcel out this information, but wastes none in thrusting the viewer into intimate quarters with its three central characters. Mark is a blunt yet garrulous railway worker — an occupation not too far removed from carpenter — who seems to be a loving father but a somewhat less reliable husband. Son Jerome is a quiet, gimlet-eyed boy who spends his time scouting out birds in the surrounding woods, and always seems to know more than he lets on.
Though she occupies the film’s focal point, Jackie is something of a closed book as a character. Without any obvious religious faith or an angel Gabriel to offer her solace or explanation (the film as a whole contains almost no overt Christian references), Jackie must deal with the domestic recriminations and social stigma of her unexplained pregnancy alone, and she does not respond well to the pressure. Marshall does astute work with the role, however, her performance always maintaining audience sympathy even as her character does everything possible to repel it.
In a series of unhurried, believable domestic scenes, we see the three watch movies, fix meals, subtly defuse arguments and visit extended family, while Jackie grows ever more standoffish as she secretly processes the strange things happening to her, including — in the film’s only deviations from plainspoken realism — unexplained nosebleeds and a recurring hallucination of a rainstorm in her bathroom.
It’s easy to become a bit exasperated by Tucker Green’s languid, fragmented narrative process, but she maintains a consistent loose rhythm throughout, instilling confidence that she knows how all of these jagged fragments and oblique motivations will eventually fit together.
The director asks quite a bit from her cast, shooting extended exchanges in long, unbroken takes, and they deliver. One nearly three-minute shot locks down on the motionless Jerome as he watches his parents argue offscreen, and Francis Lewis displays some remarkably sustained restraint for such a young actor. Elba’s performance is sophisticated enough to draw on his leading-man charms when necessary, while also suggesting undercurrents of a more brutish, unpredictable character within.
Cinematographer Ula Pontikos’ lensing makes the British setting’s overcast dampness palpable, though the abundance of cold blues and grays sometimes lends a strange clinical sheen to otherwise naturalistic scenes.