Not one, but two British films this week, one that’s only being screened at the cinema (if you’re brave enough) and one that’s also available to stream at home (if you’re not, or have been pinged. Who hasn’t?).
If it’s to be the cinema then it’s Off the Rails, one of those gentle ensemble comedies that we do so well (Calendar Girls, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, etc.), except when we don’t, and it all falls rather flat, and feels like the B-side of a Richard Curtis film. This comes in, alas, at the flatter, B-side end of the spectrum, even if its heart is in the right place and all the other things you say when a film doesn’t deserve a kicking. But you can’t really say it’s any good.
Plot-wise the deal is: to comply with the dying wish of their best friend, Liz (Sally Phillips), Kate (Jenny Seagrove) and Cassie (Kelly Preston) must take her 18-year-old daughter, Maddie (Elizabeth Dormer-Phillips), on the interrailing trip around Europe that they never quite finished when they were young. It opens at the funeral, with a cameo from Judi Dench as the mother of the deceased, which offers some emotional heft, but otherwise there are annoyances right from the start. Why does Liz not recognise Maddie? Why does she whisper ‘Who’s that?’ from her pew? What kind of best friends are these people? Weren’t they in touch on Facebook at least? Heart in the right place and all that, but plausibility isn’t a strong feature here.
Directed by Jules Williamson and written by Jordan Waller, it’s as if the characters have been drawn from a pick-your-trope screenwriting manual. Liz, for example, is the controlling one who needs to let go, while Cassie is the alcoholic Hollywood soap star. Kate is hardened against romance (or is she?). The performances are fine but there is nothing for any of the actresses to properly get their teeth into. Meanwhile, as they travel across Europe there are, of course, tears, laughter, mishaps, feuds, cultural stereotypes and the possibility of love affairs in the form of Ben Miller and Franco Nero. While some jokes do land some lines do not and are total cringe. ‘I’m not going to roll over and die just because Auntie Flo has left the neighbourhood,’ says Cassie, which isn’t how older women discuss the menopause, in my experience. It’s lovely to see all the foreign cities, and it’s lovely that older women get a film to themselves, but if someone asks you to see it at the cinema, and you haven’t been pinged, you may wish to pretend you have.
The better bet is to stay put for Nowhere Special but be warned: you will need to keep a box of tissues to hand, if not all the tissues in the world. Here, James Norton goes against everything we think we know about James Norton — he is always being mooted as the next Bond — as he plays John, a tattooed, tracky-bottomed Belfast window cleaner who lives in a high rise and is dying of brain cancer. The film, inspired by true events and directed by Uberto Pasolini, is the story of John’s search to find a family to adopt his son, four-year-old Michael (Daniel Lamont). This is told as a series of vignettes, and alternates scenes of crushingly powerful intimacy — oh God, the birthday cake scene; it’ll tear your heart out — with ones where they visit potential families, like the posh couple who let slip Michael would be sent to boarding school. This could be sentimental and twee, particularly as Michael, in his little yellow mac, is cute as a button, but Pasolini reins it in and keeps it spare and tight, while Norton’s quietly devastating performance is a revelation. There is nothing that isn’t believable here. Hence the tissues.
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