The three leading actors here, Juno Temple, Timothy Spall and Matt Ryan plus Hayley Squires, who was so good in Ken Loach’s “I Daniel Blake” and has a supporting role in this, all do a superb job. But they are fighting to make sense of a story which is both clichéd and overcomplicated and some rather inept direction.
Spall and Temple play a prickly middle aged man and a young woman, who form an unlikely surrogate father/daughter friendship in bizarre circumstances. Spall is Joseph, who is grieving over the loss of his wife – not a spoiler that. You’ll guess it from the opening shot of him drunkenly dancing alone in his living room. Temple is Ria, who is in thrall to her violent, drug dealer boyfriend Dex (Ryan). You get this from the other opening scene, a disturbing sequence set in gent’s toilet, where you’re not sure whether Dex wants to rape her or kill her. We later gather that Ria has stolen Dex’s drug stash and see her escape to Blackpool, where she rescues Joseph from a suicide attempt and where their relationship is largely played out.
Much of the story is told in flashback and this is its main weakness, in that director Blair gives us no visual or other indication of where we are in the timeline, so it is very difficult, indeed impossible, most of the time to tell whether we are in the present or the past. Blair and his cinematographer are also too much in love with their location, which is admittedly beautifully shot. Blackpool out of season is indeed a great setting for a film but they seem to forget that the point is not to just make gorgeous and evocative pictures but for those pictures to tell a story. There is one shot, memorable for the wrong reasons, where Ria, who via an unlikely plot move is dressed in a ball gown and being chased by the bad guy onto the pier. She takes off her high heeled shoes and leaves them neatly arranged on the ground, just so the director can get a beautiful shot of them set against the quaintness of the pier. Sorry, in those circumstances a woman would either just kick off her shoes or pick them up and run with them. The story also falls back far too often on Raymond Chandler’s famous advice to writers who have painted themselves into a corner – “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand”.
The film feels as though it has been directed by a new graduate from film school with little experience and keen to show off all the tricks he has learned as a student. But no, Blair is a highly experienced director of television drama, such as the series “Takin’ Over the Asylum”, “The Street” and “Anna Karenina”. Nor is this his first film for the cinema. The writer of the script is a newcomer, so should have had the benefit of Blair’s experience in developing his story and characters from what is a collection of well worn ideas and cliché characteristics into fully realised people and original plotting. But it would appear he didn’t.
The actors however are all superb. Spall brings conviction and pathos to the most banal of dialogue. He is just incapable of giving a bad performance. Temple plays her role with an interesting and effective mixture of toughness and vulnerability, while Ryan manages to be both devastatingly sexy and terrifying at the same time. They all though deserve much better material.