Film Review: ‘Permission’ is a Surprising Romantic Drama that Doesn’t Hold Back

Rebecca Hall and Dan Stevens anchor a weaving romance that (almost) comes together in the end.

It takes a lot for a romantic film to feel fresh these days, because most of the genre’s conventions have been played out in every way shape and form. But Brian Crano’s Permission takes its main characters in such unique directions that by the end of the movie I found myself on the edge of my seat. The story follows college sweethearts Anna (Rebecca Hall) and Will (Dan Stevens) as they decide to open up their relationship after ten years together. The film than traces the two as they each sleep with other people, reporting back to their apartment in Brooklyn where they share stories about other lovers, Will and Anna attempting to grapple with their own feelings.

The performances of Stevens and Hall are what electrify the film. Each coming off of a very strong 2017 on screen (Hall in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Stevens in Legion and Beauty and the Beast), the actors excel as lovers who don’t understand what it means to be in love. The two seem so natural together that I was surprised to see they had never been in a movie together. Hall plays Anna as a bit of a wallflower who manages to find herself in a surprisingly emotional way, while Stevens imbues Will with a mania and drive that act as both his strongest asset and biggest weakness.

Where Permission suffers the most is in a b-story that feels intrusive to the core romance. Anna’s brother Hale (played by director Crano’s partner David Joseph Craig) and his partner Reece (played by Hall’s husband Morgan Spector) begin to have troubles in their own long-term relationship following Hale’s realization that he wants children. This arc feels like a complete detour from the actual story for a majority of the runtime, dragging the film to a screeching halt whenever either Hall or Stevens aren’t in the scene. However, the conclusion of the story manages to stick the landing, properly enmeshing the secondary plot in the main story. Craig and Spector, however, are never enough to carry that much story, leaving them seeming wrong for each other from the start.

Other supporting cast members do much better than Spector and Craig, including the French-Canadian star François Arnaud as the musician that Anna begins to sleep with, along with Gina Gershon as an older woman who begins to flirt with Will. Gershon is brilliant, and her character seems to grow as the story progresses in a way that “the other woman” rarely does.

Many of the deeper problems of the film come from structural issues with how rushed everything feels in the film, including other flings of both Hall and Stevens that seem disingenuous to the characters. Furthermore the beginning of the movie is fairly stilted, with dialogue that seems completely inorganic. Permission also doesn’t look or feel much different from the dozens of other New York City-based films in a year, which makes the more compelling story fall flat. But by focusing on modern romance in such a specific way and by examining open relationships without poking fun at them, Permission treats the audience to a smart romantic drama, a rarity for modern times.

The film hits theaters this Friday.

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