The ever-captivating Andrea Riseborough turns in yet another powerful and arresting performance at the cold heart of Nancy. From debutant feature director Christina Choe, this painfully melancholic not-quite thriller offers an empathetic character study, concerned with themes of loss, isolation and deception. It is, through and through, an actors movie, albeit one that should move Choe towards finding a deserved spotlight.
Riseborough, who produces too, plays Nancy Freeman, a maudlin thirty-something temp whose life revolves around her Parkinson’s suffering mother Betty (an affecting Ann Dowd) and their difficult relationship. When Betty’s life is abruptly cut short by a stroke, Nancy quickly convinces herself that the woman she believed to be her mother never was on seeing a news report about a five-year-old who went missing thirty years ago. As a time-projected image attests, Nancy and the missing girl, Brooke, are more than passingly alike.
Nancy is not an easy watch by any means. Just under ninety minutes in length, Choe’s film is slow and very nearly too glum for its own good, seeming content simply to observe and exist rather than force its story into a compulsive narrative. There are complexities that arise when Nancy approaches her would-be parents, Leo (Steve Buscemi) and Ellen (J. Smith-Cameron) Lynch, but nuance leads the way. If we suspect that Nancy has ulterior motives for taking so quickly to her new identity, there is little proof beyond the subliminal here.
One thing that Choe is prepared to reveal is that Nancy is no reliable narrator. Her car is full of rejection letters from magazines and agencies that won’t publish her short stories but this tells us much about her, perhaps overactive, imagination. As does the moment she tells her co-workers she has just returned from a holiday in North Korea – ‘it’s fascinating, I had a lot of fun’ – and the fact that she runs a fake blog for expecting mothers and occasionally pretends to be pregnant. Nancy has a recent past as dark as her hair and Choe’s film is more interested in loss than reunion.
Although character leads everything here, Nancy is still a visually striking piece and has been well directed by Choe. A signature effect in the film sees the opening third boxed into an Academy classic 1:37 ratio, symbolising Nancy’s spatial repression, before expanding to a modern 1:85 as new horizons beckon. The atmosphere is dense, condensed by Peter Raeburn’s ethereal score, and Choe writes with an often painful adherence to empathetic presentation. A little more warmth and approachability would have allowed audiences to share Choe’s emotional investment.
Ultimately, this is a thought-provoking and highly accomplished picture that never structurally expands in line with its widening frame. If not a must-see, Nancy is worth a look in to catch a smattering of terrific performances by actors at the top of their game.