Photograph: Signature Entertainment
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4 out of 5 stars

A powerhouse acting debut electrifies this rich drag story of fluid desire

Hanna Flint

Time Out says

Unicorns is the latest British film to grapple with the romantic prospects of a drag performer of colour and the white boy she longs for. 

Written by James Krishna Floyd and co-directed with his partner and long-time collaborator Sally El Hosaini, it arrives not long after the release of Sam H Freeman and Ng Choon Ping’s harrowing gender-fluid thriller Femme. Yet where brutal violence is the catalyst for Femme's central romance, Unicorns offers a gentler love story to become smitten with; albeit with moments of ruthless conflict.

Luke (Ben Hardy) is a straight white mechanic and single father of a five-year-old son he's struggled to take care since his ex left. At dusk, he gets a cool brush-off from the woman he’s just casually shagged in a field behind a council estate in Essex. Aysha (newcomer Jason Patel), meanwhile, makes a glamorous entrance during a kinetic dressing-up montage to the tune of ZHU & Nero's ‘Dreams’. She exudes confidence, attitude and the type of femininity associated with ‘realism drag’, less exaggerated than you might find on RuPaul's Drag Race but just as hyper-feminine.

Soon their worlds collide when Luke takes a wrong turn looking for the loos in an Indian restaurant. Hearing the muffled beats of a DJ set, he opens a door and finds himself in the vibrant wonderland of a ‘Gaysian’ (gay Asian) club night. Strobes drench Luke's greyscale life in neon colours. The thrill of leaving his comfort zone is apparent in his wide-eyed gaze when Aysha hits the stage like Bollywood’s answer to Beyoncé. Luke soon crashes back to earth when he realises that beneath Aysha’s make-up and wig lies a man called Ashiq who is contending with his own identity crisis. 

The warm-hearted and witty Patel steals the show

As a queer Muslim, Ashiq/Aysha is living a double life; he’s kept Aysha a secret from his conservative parents in Manchester and tries to keep Ashiq at a distance from Luke who is still coming to terms with his evolving sexuality. The second half of the film switches more to Aysha's perspective as Floyd's penetrating script sensitively explores gender fluidity through an authentic South Asian lens. Not to mention the fraught dynamics and rivalries within Gaysian culture that Luke discovers once he starts driving Aysha to her gigs for extra cash.

Together, Floyd and El Hosaini offer the delicate direction she showcased with her excellent debut My Brother the Devil (Floyd was the lead) in a two-hander charmingly and endearingly performed by its leads. But in his debut big-screen performance, the warm-hearted and witty Patel – like Aysha – steals the show.

In UK cinemas Jul 5.

Cast and crew

  • Director:James Krishna Floyd, Sally El Hosaini
  • Screenwriter:James Krishna Floyd
  • Cast:
    • Ben Hardy
    • Hannah Onslow
    • Jason Patel
    • Val The Brown Queen
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