San Junipero *****
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mackenzie Davis
Director: Owen Harris
Charlie Brooker's conceptual sci-fi anthology Black Mirror has gone from strength to strength since its inception, especially since Netflix took up its commission. Its newest series (its third) has been its boldest yet and episode four (San Junipero) depicts a tender young romance between two women... against the backdrop of a time-travelling Matrix-esque world.
It is 1987 and Yorkie (Davis) meets Kelly (Mbatha-Raw) in a nightclub. After spending the night together, Yorkie falls instantly in love with her, but when she returns to the club at the same time the following week, she is unable to find her. Meeting one of Kelly's friends, she is told that he has seen Kelly "in a different time", so Yorkie sets out to hunt for Kelly in different "eras", but always at the same time every week.
Baffling though that synopsis seems, its concept is relatively simple, but in true Black Mirror style, the episode allows plenty of time for head-scratching before finally pulling the strands together. What seems like a classic tale of girl-meets-girl is anything but, however this doesn't mean that it's early scenes are pulling the wool over our eyes. Or even the characters', who are completely clued-in from the start, knowing the playing field even if the audience don't. As a result, it is left to some nicely-paced plotting from Brooker to reveal to us gradually what the characters are already aware of.
Nostalgia is signposted throughout the episode with little references to pop culture dotted about, with the feature of period soundtracks and memorabilia such as movie posters and computer games. In fact, it's through these elements that we are guided through the timewarp as the screen-cards refer instead to the "one week later"s of the characters' narrative. And with 80s nostalgia the TV-de-jour post-Stranger Things, this feels like a slick and polished modern episode of Quantum Leap... if you replaced Scott Bakula with a pair of very engaging young women.
Mbatha-Raw, who has been a critics' darling since her appearance in Belle, makes for a charismatic lead, driving the story with her enigmatic confidence. Davis, recently seen in Ridley Scott's The Martian, is the empathetic everygirl and together, the pair have fizzing chemistry on-screen. Kelly drags Yorkie out of her shell and you find yourself wishing that we could see more of their relationship than the one hour run-time Black Mirror allows.
Like all good sci-fi, however, the most engaging element of this piece's blue-sky ideas is the human heart it manages to create. Although this is an "imagine-if" piece, the relationship between the pair - and the moral dilemmas it raises - are about as universal as they can be. As a result, its acute ideas are anchored to something very recognisable. Similarly, wonderful though its depiction of LGBT characters is, this also becomes irrelevant beyond its opening few minutes. Which is the mark of a truly great LGBT depiction on screen - when sexuality becomes little more than an element of character.
OUT NOW ON NETFLIX.