3.5 out of 5 stars

While Alex Cox’s second feature charts the brief and brilliant trajectory of a punk rock star, there’s little that’s punk about the film in tone or aesthetic. Yes, it can be loud and it can be irreverent, but it’s often quite understated too. Sid and Nancy is more tender than nihilist.

Its reflective, elegiac sense is evident from the first shot, a long-held silent profile of Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman). Slowly some action develops—the police ask him questions, a body is removed from the room, he’s marched away—and even to a viewer with no knowledge of the real Sid Vicious (1957-1979) and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen (1958-1978), it will be obvious these events in New York are an ending. The scene’s laden with despair, a mood that disappears for a while as a long flashback which takes up most of the movie begins, but will slowly creep back. Indeed, the film returns to this opening scene shortly before its conclusion.

London, where the flashback begins and the bulk of the movie’s set, couldn’t be more different. We meet Sid and his mate John Lydon (Andrew Schofield), better known as Johnny Rotten, who later called the film “all wrong”, as they vandalise a Rolls-Royce for kicks, then play a gig in a small club. Their band, The Sex Pistols, is already at the forefront of the mid-1970s British punk scene under the stewardship of their manager Malcolm McLaren (David Hayman). More importantly, Sid will meet Nancy (Chloe Webb).

Not only will they fall into messy, argumentative, but undoubtedly real love (one which persuades Sid to renounce his earlier rejection of sex as boring), but Nancy will also introduce him to heroin, or so the film implies, and it’ll be the beginning of their path to a rubbish-strewn room at the Hotel Chelsea. And there, near the end, Sid sits with a bloody knife in his hand watching a cartoon, while Nancy lies dead on the bathroom floor. “At least you used to be something,” she had told him a little earlier.

Significantly, though, this isn’t where Sid and Nancy ends. Although the real Vicious’s own tale soon came to its own grim conclusion—he died of an overdose while awaiting trial for her murder, and the police then closed the case, though there have been theories that another person killed her—Cox takes care to finish on an almost upbeat note. 

Released on bail, Sid (having successfully gone cold turkey) treks over an urban wasteland to an implausibly located pizza joint, and there scoffs down a pie before running into three young kids outside, and disco-dancing with them to KC & The Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight”. These uncomplicated pleasures (and decidedly un-punkish music), Sid and Nancy seems to be saying, are all he really wanted while the drugs and the fame did him down. It’s not clear whether the scene’s pure fantasy (there’s an earlier precedent where he opens fire on a middle-class audience), but it doesn’t really matter. Sid and Nancy might be mostly about real events, but ultimately its priority is bringing to life the two people in the title roles.

Indeed, parts of the narrative aren’t easy to follow if you’re unfamiliar with the outline of the story, and the identity of some characters might be mysterious. For instance, the character Wally Hairstyle (Graham Fletcher-Cook) is clearly intended to be the real Wally Nightingale, a musician in The Sex Pistols’ predecessor band The Swankers. But again, it doesn’t matter much. Sid and Nancy succeeds largely thanks to its performances, and secondarily thanks to some magnificent individual passages. Highlights include the brief concert excerpts, especially a wickedly funny, Sinatra-lampooning rendition of “My Way” by Oldman/Vicious. There’s no actual Sex Pistols on the soundtrack, where much of the background music (as opposed to the concert recreations) was contributed by Joe Strummer and The Pogues.

Other notable scenes include one where police seize punks emerging from a boat party on the Thames while Sid and Nancy, newly coupled up, walk calmly through the melee in their own world; a visit to Nancy’s grandparents in the US (with Milton Selzer an excellent grandpa, trying to be polite and positive but not knowing quite what to say to the English punk rocker at his dining table); and a moment on the American tour bus, where a record company executive (Miguel Sandoval) tries to interest the band in his own song, a dreadful thing entitled “I Want a Job.”

Specific moments in the film pale, though, beside the performances—especially those of Oldman and Webb, though the supporting cast are uniformly excellent too. The two leads, both nearly 30 at the time of production, are really too old for the parts (neither Vicious nor Spungen saw their 22nd birthday) but if this makes the movie slightly misleading, it does no dramatic harm because they act younger convincingly enough. Their mutual fascination is also believable and Cox gives them plenty of room to explore it—notably by not smothering the film in excessive period detail or local colour, even as it moves from London to the US to Paris.

And in their characters are, possibly, the roots of their tragedy. Sid’s softer and more sensible than he lets on, less worldly too, and a relatively restrained performance from Oldman (which we might not have had from first choice Daniel Day-Lewis) complements Webb’s more assertive one. Her Nancy comes across as a cartoonishly overwrought American at first, but we soon see the vulnerability behind the facade, and ensuring that she doesn’t tip over into caricature is a tour de force on the part of Webb. Her final, hopeless speech is terrific.

Danny Boyle has a series about The Sex Pistols called Pistol due soon, with Louis Partridge and Emma Appleton as Sid and Nancy, and Vicious himself (along with McLaren and others) appeared in Julien Temple’s mockumentary The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle (1980). But it seems likely that Oldman’s and Webb’s will remain the definitive screen portrayals of the two.

Among the less prominent characters—many of their real-life models interviewed by Cox in preparation for the film—Hayman’s scheming, detached McLaren stands out (you can almost see the dollar signs in his eyes when he describes Vicious as “a fabulous disaster”). So does Xander Berkeley as the interestingly named Bowery Snax, Sid and Nancy’s dealer in New York.

Schofield’s Johnny Rotten is amusing, but apart from him the band members are given little presence by the script; Perry Benson plays Paul Cook, and Tony London is Steve Jones. In much smaller roles, Edward Tudor-Pole (originally lead singer of the punk band Tenpole Tudor) appears as a hotel manager, while a pre-fame Courtney Love has a small part, as do Kathy Burke and Iggy Pop.

Visually, the film is appropriately unsophisticated, with Cox and the great cinematographer Roger Deakins favouring big, bold, simple shapes in compositions. There’s some witty editing, but it never detracts from the film’s plain-spoken nature; more significant is the slow shift in colour palette as Sid and Nancy progresses. An entirely black-and-white look had been considered, but backers rejected the idea, so Deakins makes it less colourful and more monochrome as the couple slide further away from success and into addiction. 

Sid and Nancy was for a long time intended to be called Love Kills (and that was used as a title or partial title in a few countries). Cox has since suggested that the film has a much more political message, that heroin “is a means of social control”, but despite a rather awkwardly inserted scene where a worker at a methadone clinic (Sy Richardson) presents this very idea to Sid and Nancy, it isn’t really an obvious takeaway from the movie. The characters are agents of their own destruction at least as much as they’re anyone’s victim. And in any case, it makes little sense as a theory, given heroin’s low uptake; alcohol or, these days, prescription opioids would be better contenders.

The movie wasn’t a box office success but it met with cautious acclaim. The sordid story and seemingly unsympathetic characters were an issue for some, but many critics were positive about the performances and the relationship at the film’s heart. Janet Maslin, in The New York Times, summed up the mixed feelings by describing it as “intentionally ugly and sometimes unexpectedly beautiful.”

And perhaps, indeed, Sid and Nancy is about two people who started off finding the world ugly and then discovered beauty in it. It’s not a punk film, or particularly a film about punk rock. It’s not weighed down by nostalgia for time and place (as it might be if made today). It’s just about Sid, and Nancy, and love, and brief happiness that comes off the screen as so real it isn’t entirely tarnished by the way that things go so wrong later. Amor vincit fucking omnia, as Sid Vicious probably didn’t say.

UK | 1986 | 112 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Alex Cox.
writers: Alex Cox & Abbe Wool.
starring: Gary Oldman, Chloe Webb, David Hayman, Andrew Schofield & Xander Berkeley.