Equals is a film that mixes science fiction and romance with a Shakespearean twist

A movie made by Drake Doremus, a self-declared romantic.

A scene from Equals starring Kristen Stewart. The film, shot largely in Japan, features stunning landscapes. Courtesy Venice Film Festival
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The movie business – what’s love got to do with it? For director Drake Doremus, the answer is everything.

The American filmmaker behind the troubled-love stories Like Crazy and Breathe In is back with Equals, a science-fiction romance that throws Kristen Stewart (The Twilight Saga, Camp X-Ray) and Nicholas Hoult (X-Men, Mad Max: Fury Road) into a future society where emotions – those messy, disruptive things – have been genetically suppressed for the good of humanity.

Their characters, Nia and Silas, develop feelings that blossom into a secret love that shakes their identities and endangers their lives.

Doremus – a self-declared romantic – says the film grew out of a desire to explore “a world where love is not essential to human beings ... and whether love will always find a way or whether it won’t”.

"Cynically finding my way to hope, really," the director said on Saturday at the Venice Film Festival, where Equals is one of 21 films competing for the top Golden Lion prize.

Stewart shares her director’s passion for feelings and thinks the film’s anti-emotional society isn’t too far removed from our own.

“There are aspects of our world that are entirely subdued,” Stewart says before the film’s red-carpet world premiere. “Why can’t we be a little ... crazy some of the time? Why can’t we just feel unabashedly?

“Even if you’re a little bit crazy, even if you make mistakes, OK, fine – at least you’re living.”

Even so, Stewart acknowledges making the film was “daunting”. She and Hoult are on screen together much of the time, often in close-up, and must bare their emotions with subtle conviction.

“I was really scared of it,” she says. The story “was so simple and so basic that it could have been an absolute trite, messy nothing – or it could be everything. It could be the most moving emotional experience.”

The screenplay for Equals was written by Nathan Parker – who also wrote the low-budget lunar hit Moon – and is the first film Doremus has made from a finished script rather than developed through improvisation.

He rehearsed the actors for a week before filming – an experience Hoult said he found liberating.

“Often in a script you’ll see [that] your character cries,” the actor says. “And you turn up on the set that day and you think, everyone knows I’m meant to cry now. And it’s suddenly so much pressure.

“Drake doesn’t do any of those things. He’s like, just be – and be vulnerable and honest.”

The result is a sleek, subdued film that won praise from some viewers in Venice, but left others cold.

Most agreed that the leads and the landscape look gorgeous. The film was shot largely in Japan, using the minimalist modern buildings of architect Tadao Ando as a backdrop. The effect is dystopia crossed with Dwell magazine.

“It was so functional and beautiful, but so stifling,” Stewart says of the architecture. “You’re like: ‘It’s gorgeous. I just want to stare at everything, yet I want to run away from it.’”

Despite its future setting, the film's tale of forbidden young love is as old as time and it shares plot points with Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

Like that play, Equals seems likely to appeal to the young, especially given Stewart and Hoult's big teenage fan bases. Both are now 25, with years of fame behind them.

Stewart began starring in the Twilight films as a teenager, while Hoult has been in the spotlight since he was the awkward child hero of 2002's About a Boy, which was based on the novel by Nick Hornby.

Both have thrived by going in unexpected directions, making smaller art-house films alongside more mainstream fare.

"I think that's the trick – for people to not quite know what's going to happen next," says Hoult, who was seen in the much scruffier future sci-fi world of Mad Max.

“I so lead with my gut that there’s never anything too tactical,” added Stewart. “I’m never tactically manoeuvring my career.”

* Associated Press