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Femme review – outstandingly tense psychodrama of drag and sexual peril

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and George MacKay bring alpha performances to this psychodrama of sexual danger from first-time feature directors Sam H Freeman and Ng Choon Ping, developed from an earlier award-winning short film. Jules, played by Stewart-Jarrett, is a drag artist with an enthusiastic club following and supportive flatmates: protective, plain-speaking Alicia (Asha Reid) and Toby (John McCrea), who has alcohol issues and is not-so-secretly messed up by his unrequited feelings for Jules.

Preparing for a show one night, Jules notices a guy outside the venue, checking him out: this is the sulky, straight-acting Preston (MacKay), who scowls at Jules’s seductive smile and stalks off. Later, when Jules pops into a late-night pharmacy, rashly still in costume and makeup, Preston shows up with a gang of mates and subjects him to a brutal homophobic attack. Jules’s toxic depression only lifts when he sees Preston at a gay sauna and (realising he is unrecognisable), makes an approach. Soon, they are having very transgressive sex, made all the more toxically thrilling by the fact that Jules is clearly preparing for some kind of revenge. Or is something else happening now?

Nothing is more cliched and tired in the movies than someone going undercover only to find they like being in their fake persona and they are beginning to have genuine feelings or friendship or respect for the person that they’re there to take down. But the storytelling here is more complex and more tightly constructed than that. Femme is a really well-worked-through story with tense developments and reversals; it keeps you on the edge of your seat and the outstanding performances from Stewart-Jarrett and MacKay have delicacy, subtlety and depth. What a great feature debut.

• Femme is released on 1 December in UK cinemas.