Unicorns (2023) Bfi Flare 2024

March 25th, 2024
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Sally El Hosaini and James Krishna Floyd | Cast: Ben Hardy, Hannah Onslow, Madelyn Smedley, Nisha Nayar | UK Drama 119’

A unicorn is not only a mythical creature but also acts as a metaphor for strength and resilience. These are qualities at the heart of a new British film made by the director team of Sally El Hosaini and James Krishna Floyd. Their latest collaboration neatly fits into a genre of feel-good social comment comic dramas, often successes of the more modest budgeted British film industry.

Unicorns centres around an unlikely queer romance between a young white English Essex working class mechanic and an Asian Muslim drag queen. The film has a ring of truth linked to true-life source material of Asifa Lahore who was Britain’s first Muslim drag queen. Where it transcends this material is an awareness of how opposites with split divided lives in real life often attract each other as a way of breaking out of traditional thoughts and manners of behaviour. As Unicorns reveals, the journey to fulfilment is not always an easy one but there is warmth and humour along the way with moments of heartbreak which the film sensitively blends together.

The film begins with a young man’s casual and lusty sexual encounter with a woman on scrubland followed by a purely accidental, serendipitous foray into London’s legendary Club Kali for queer Asians and friends. It is here that the young man Luke (Ben Hardy) locks eyes with a beautiful drag queen dancer Ashiq/ Aysha (Jason Patel).  

After this uneasy but engaging chance meeting the film charts a ‘will they or won’t they get it together’ relationship linked to pressures of Luke being a single dad of a 5-year-old son with an absent partner and the recent death of his mother, while also discovering that he may not be as entirely heterosexual as he imagines. Ashiq also has a secret life as a drag queen dancer in queer clubs and private parties which is totally hidden from the day-to-day reality of his life as a dutiful son of an Asian Muslim family. For a queer Asian man there is sometimes a choice in life of an arranged marriage or – as described at one point – jumping off a bridge.

Key scenes take place in a car at night which the film uses as a form of road journey with an enclosed private space in which both characters grow and change during the course of the film. For Luke there is the way he discovers love and sexually connecting with another man. For Aysha there are rivalries with other drag queens and pimps as well as pressure from a brother to conform and stop the double life. All the performances linked to a wide range of friends and family for both characters are astutely well observed, performed and directed by filmmakers who previously made My Brother the Devil (Best British Newcomer 2013) and The Swimmers 2022.

Unicorns reveals how Britain has embraced enlightened and progressive attitudes towards diverse mixes of ethnic and gender cultures and fits well within a tradition of social realist comic dramas such as the queer English romances of My Beautiful Launderette 1985 and Beautiful Thing 1996. Unicorns may appear slight at times and wear its heart on its sleeve in places although audiences are likely to enjoy the film’s resilience, as much as two lovers do while learning lessons in the power of love. @PeterHerbert 


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