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Review: ‘Stars at Noon’ is a languid political romance in desperate need of some extra spark

If only 'Stars at Noon' shifted its focus a little bit more towards the aspects it chooses to keep as background, then the end-product could have been more successful.

Image via Canal+/A24

Claire Denis’ 2022 Cannes Grand Prix winner Stars at Noon tells the story of an American journalist, Trish, played by Margaret Qualley, and Englishman, Daniel, played by Joe Alwyn, that fall in love in the midst of the political unrest of COVID-time Nicaragua. Trish soon finds that Daniel is a wanted man, and is forced to choose between love and freedom.

The screenplay is adapted from the 1986 novel of the same name by Denis Johnson, but Claire Denis masterfully transports its setting from the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1984 against the Samoza dictatorship to the recent protests against President Daniel Ortega.

The story’s focus on two foreigners as they navigate the intricacies of the volatile sociopolitical climate of a Central American country can be off-putting at times, like when Trish says she came to Nicaragua to “know the exact dimensions of hell” or yells at Nicaraguan bystanders about American tanks coming to crush their “hopeless” country.

Choosing to center two people who have become involved in their predicament by choice, while simultaneously portraying those who were involuntarily born into it as the crude backdrop to their love affair, could be a recipe for disaster, but Denis just manages to walk that tricky tightrope without falling.

The Nicaraguan locals are given enough agency to demonstrate their apathy and sometimes even disdain for these meddlers, and although the subtext of the economical exploitation of the country by American companies requires some attention, it is still very much present.

Stars At Noon is often categorized as a romantic thriller, but I hesitate to label it as such. It is a romance, sure enough, even if a quite feeble one, but it does not thrill. Where Stars At Noon feeds from to keep itself alive is its sociopolitical nuance, intrigue, and emotional core.

It is so wonderful in so many aspects, except for the two that were supposed to be its central motives: the romantic and sexual relationship between the two protagonists which is supposed to carry the convoluted and occasionally incomprehensible espionage plot. Sadly, despite a brilliant performance primarily by the leading lady, Qualley and Alwyn’s chemistry is underwhelming, and they don’t do a good enough job at selling the idea of their ardent infatuation to make the audience root for or stand behind their love-motivated choices.

If instead, we strip the film of the simplistic cages that these categories trap it in, there’s a fascinating underlayer that’s much more abstract, but all the more successful for it. One that is quite vivid to the senses, thanks to Denis’ incredibly intentional direction, in the way it explores the idea of trust, free falling, anxiety, and entrapment.

The desperately slow pace of the film contributes to this experience and only starts feeling excessive by the final stretch of its duration. The photography is exquisite and brings out the best of the characters’ surroundings, whether those are scrappy motels, luxury hotels, or the vibrant streets of Central America. It’s a fantastic example of how you can shoot a film south of the US without smothering it in that annoying yellow tint. The original score by Tindersticks is also another of the movie’s strong points.

Ultimately, Stars At Noon provides an interesting look into an important time in history for Nicaragua from the perspective of a French director who has no direct involvement with the reality she is representing. Unfortunately, the conventionally attractive hetero-normative romance between the leads, and the espionage shenanigans they get up to, are wildly uninteresting compared to the gravitas of everything that is going on in the background.

Stars At Noon is available to stream now on Hulu.


If only 'Stars at Noon' shifted its focus a little bit more towards the aspects it chooses to keep as background, then the end-product could have been more successful.

Stars at Noon

Francisca Tinoco
About the author

Francisca Tinoco

Francisca is a pop culture enthusiast and film expert. Her Bachelor's Degree in Communication Sciences from Nova University in Portugal and Master's Degree in Film Studies from Oxford Brookes University in the UK have allowed her to combine her love for writing with her love for the movies. She's a freelance writer and content creator, working in both the English and Portuguese languages for various platforms, including WGTC.