Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield have it. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender have it. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have it. Will Ferrell and his Anchorman news team had it. Nicole Kidman’s most recent film was taken out of competition at Cannes partly because of not having it. Joaquin Phoenix had it with a voice and a screen. Sherlock Holmes has relied on it for years. The thing that such a diverse range of situations has in common? It is of course the great building block of human life: Chemistry.
When it comes to movies and people, we’re very familiar with chemistry. Generally used to describe a certain quality of relationship between characters, chemistry is a neat little word that we often use without a second thought. And on the surface, chemistry does look pretty simple – like, for example, when a science teacher puts a Mento in a coke bottle on the first day in class and everyone laughs and wonders how hard this could be. After all, chemistry is just about interactions and human beings exist mainly to interact with each other; when we’re not interacting with each other we’re either asleep or watching other people interact with each other. You would have thought that we’d be quite good at it. As it turns out – just as it did a few weeks later in that science class when it gradually began to dawn on everyone that that first day might have been a bit of a con – it isn’t actually always this straightforward. Because as important as we know chemistry is, how on earth do we actually define the stuff?
Somewhat weirdly for something that implies a formula, there are actually no real instructions for how to create great character chemistry. It might seem as though there are some basic laws of nature that it would make sense to follow, such as the crafting of a good romantic relationship between two good leads, but if we look even just slightly further into the infinite number of relationships in the cinematic world, the word ‘chemistry’ is not limited to romance. Nor is it limited to relationships between people of the opposite sex. Or people who like each other. Or people at all, for that matter.
Yet we recognize chemistry straight away when we see it and we’re lethally quick to point out when it’s not there. Filmmakers in many genres have learned the hard way that they can throw all they like at a film’s overall production, but if they have failed to add this particular element to the mixture (I am genuinely sorry, the chemistry puns will stop soon), they may as well have just shot the whole thing on their smartphones. Then again, there are those incredible moments – like the old faithful Mento in the coke bottle – in which something really does work and that everyone remembers and takes great delight in recalling (or recreating on the patio at parties) for years to come.
So what exactly is this thing called chemistry? What is this weird and wonderful force that is so hard to properly describe but that can make or break whole films? Let’s run a few tests.