Together

James McAvoy squats in the kitchen

Together is a select member of a new genre – the Covid Drama – and sees Sharon Horgan back working again with Dennis Kelly. Together they co-wrote Pulling, the TV relationship comedy that made both their names. Kelly went on to create and write the TV conspiracy thriller Utopia and Horgan to co-write the popular comedy series Catastrophe. This time around he writes, she acts (though you can’t rule out the possibility that there’s a fair amount of improvising going on too).

Flipping the actual experience of many people – who found that the whole Covid experience (particularly the lockdowns in the UK) caused their relationship to buckle – Together is a funny/angry examination of a married couple who we join in a state of verbal warfare. They hate each other. She wishes he’d get cancer, one of the horrible ones, not testicular or skin cancer; he goes into great length about how much he hates individual parts of her body. Not hate them as parts of a body – he’s happy to concede that she’s got cute bits – just when they’re attached to her.

Obviously, given where He and She (as they’re billed) are, things cannot get much worse. Together tracks their journey, him the working-class “bootstraps” kind of right-winger who is permanently angry with everything, her the virtue-signalling leftie – even their politics are at odds – as Covid throws extended close proximity, career hiccups and personal tragedy in their way.

They speak to each other but mostly they speak to camera, a confessor figure before whom they have no secrets or shame. It’s a conspiratorial, stage-derived style of address and it works for what could so easily have been a drama in the multiscreen style of the Covid Horror Zoom – but isn’t. Director Stephen Daldry and his co-director Justin Martin are clearly drawing on their backgrounds at the UK’s Royal National Theatre.

Sharon Horgan as She
Sharon Horgan as She


The whole thing was shot in ten days and has a functional newsy vibe, with stats from the Covid year flashed up on the screen (this many dead, this many vaccinated) and manages to catch the atmosphere of 2020 in a way that – only a few months on – makes that era seem already distant, though as I write Covid is still killing and hospitalising people.

There is acting to make you marvel. Horgan is very good, but James McAvoy, speaking in his own Scottish voice for a change, is better, but then the bolshie husband’s character’s journey is a longer one so McAvoy gets to show more of his range. But then if you’ve seen that M Night Shyamalan drama Split, about a kidnapper with multiple personalities, you’ll know how good McAvoy can be (a lot better than the film itself in that case).

No one dies in this, on screen at least, but Together stops at many of the familiar Covid waystations – food shortages, the debacle that saw sick old people decanted out of hospitals and into care homes, Christmas “cancelled”, discussions about whether the world will be different, maybe better, “afterwards”.

There’s the occasional moment where the political soapbox comes out and Kelly unloads about the government signally failing to govern, though mostly it’s him and her, her and him, and a love-to-hate-you relationship being worked through at length and at volume. And through all the ranting and raging wanders Artie, their “weird” kid, who acts as a kind of silent Greek chorus, or perhaps represents us, the missing audience, barely uttering a word, keeping himself to himself, loitering on the stairs while his parents shout at each other, or flicking food on the window pane by the front door – you make your own entertainment.

It’s written from the UK perspective and is designed for UK consumption though much of it will ring true even if you’re not familiar with Tesco Metro or have never watched Bridgerton on TV. It’s a variation on what many people have gone through in the past year or so parcelled up and re-presented back to them as a form of cathartic entertainment, a chamber piece shot through with the kind of skewed, conflicted optimism that is Kelly’s speciality.





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© Steve Morrissey 2021









Made in Italy

Liam Neeson and Micheál Richardson


Made in Italy feels like it’s based on one of the books by Peter Mayle, the British advertising executive who tired of the life and lit out for France, where he set about writing lighthearted sun-dredged reports on his new life. A Year in Provence was the first and it sold very well.

That became a TV series of the same name, starring John Thaw and Lindsay Duncan as the expatriate couple making a new go of it, and another Mayle book, A Good Year, later became a Ridley Scott film starring Russell Crowe as a Brit in Provence learning to be a bit less of a bull at a gate about life.

Writer/director James McAvoy clearly has Mayle in his sights for his Tuscan version of the same thing – Brits abroad, charming vila, a beaker of the warm south, daffy locals, life lessons learned, the soul restored.

And, as if to make a connection to Mayle’s books, Lindsay Duncan turns up, as an estate agent, McAvoy clearly not remembering that A Year in Provence on TV got a critical hammering.

What A Year in Provence did with a husband and wife, Made in Italy does with a father and son. Liam Neeson and Micheál Richardson (Neeson’s actual son) play the pair. Robert (Neeson) is a once well known painter who hasn’t actually produced anything for years. Jack (Richardson) is the son travelling to Italy with his father to sell the family’s holiday home in Tuscany to raise money after a messy divorce in which “she got everything”.

Off they go, grumbling curmudgeonly Robert and lightly simmering Jack, old beefs kept on the back burner so they can do the necessary, patch up the house neither has visited for years and then carry on with their separate lives.

We know with a certainty strong enough to wager a kidney on it that this is not going to happen. And so Robert and Jack arrive and the film takes wing – those Tuscan landscapes, the fabulous villa looking like (broken down) property porn, the obligatory romance (for Jack) with a stunningly attractive, warm smart Italian (Valeria Bilello), the montage sequences of the house being licked into shape, including the simple glorious meal of bread, cheese and a glass of rustic red. McAvoy spares us the idiosyncratic locals – maybe they got lost in the edit.

Natalia and Jack
Natalia and Jack



In the background lurks the dead wife of Robert, the local girl Robert married all those years ago, and whose death lies ever-present in the life of both him and his son – dad won’t talk about it, won’t paint, won’t drive. All three are connected and at a certain point this emotional boil has to be lanced, in scenes that jar not because the acting is bad – it isn’t – but because they upset the prevailing tone.

Up till now nothing has really had any emotional consequence – dad’s painting, son’s broken marriage, their bad relationship, and on top of that we’ve been introduced to Natalia (Bilello), struggling single mother with an ex husband (Gian Marco Tavani) who looks like he’s being lined up to be a proper villain. But that goes nowhere. None of it really goes anywhere.

In fact in Made in Italy nothing really happens, while the tone swings around wildly – comedy, romance, drama, melodrama. Neeson struggles manfully with an underwritten role, his comedy-curmudgeon dad flashing on and off like a distress beacon, while there’s enough of a romantic subplot between Jack and Natalie (she runs a local restaurant, naturally) for us to realise that there is no chemistry between Richardson and Bellilo.

Still, there’s Pavarotti on the soundtrack and plenty of fabulous views of Tuscany. Valeria Bilello emerges relatively unscathed, somehow embodying what the film is meant to be full of, but isn’t. As a picture-postcard movie for a wet Sunday night, Made in Italy might fit the bill.





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© Steve Morrissey 2021






Starter for 10

Alice Eve, James McAvoy and Rebecca Hall in Starter for 10

 

 

Write what you know, they say, and David Nicholls certainly does that here. An adaptation of his 2003 best-seller about a 1980s working class kid going to university, written by a 1980s working class kid who went to university, this comedy is full of period flavour and has the tang of authentic experience. Nicholls and director Tom Vaughan haven’t left success to chance, however, they’ve pumped all this bittersweet detail into the most durable of genre plots – the romantic comedy – with James McAvoy playing the Nicholls avatar, Brian Jackson, a fresher at the high-end Bristol university (Nicholls’s own alma mater) who is slightly out of his social class and so signs up to join the University Challenge quiz team. Where he meets leggy blonde head-turning posh tease Alice (Alice Eve), seemingly just minutes after having met the bright, socially committed Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), who is more in his league.

The drama then consists of watching young Brian throw himself to little avail against Alice’s ramparts while under his nose, waiting if only he knew it… you’re ahead of me. But this really is a case of “never mind the plot, feel the detail” with Nicholls’s screenplay taking time to paint the sense of freedom that leaving home brings, but also the gulf it opens up between the old life and the new.

This is where McAvoy comes in, the go-to guy for a certain sort of well-brought-up British male (Scottish accent optional), he is to the aspiring working class and lower middles what Danny Dyer is to the contentedly working class, a seemingly effortless charmer, playing a series of smart, likeable, cocky but vulnerable characters people identify with. So we are on Brian’s side when he goes home to find there’s a distance between him and his lone-parent mother (Catherine Tate) who made sacrifices so he’d get on, and that his down-to-earth best mate at home (Dominic Cooper) now seems, in comparison to his new university friends, a bit gauche. And we’re on Brian’s side too when he encounters the socially superior lah-di-dah types you meet in the groves of academe (Benedict Cumberbatch’s quiz team captain). Nicholls and Vaughan also score well on painting a picture of the first weeks at university, as uprooted teenagers work out which new group they fit into – the pseuds, the dudes, dressers up, the lumpen others, and so on.

And it’s the 1980s, so The Cure feature heavily on the zeitgeisty soundtrack – as anyone who’s read Nicholls’s One Day will know, music is key to his capture of period – and the patron saints of 1980s awkwardness seem never more appropriate than here.

Does it all end happily? Well that would be giving away too much of the plot, but as readers of One Day will also know, Nicholls is as much about exploiting genre as polishing it, so don’t get too cosy with what looks at first glance like a British version of a John Hughes underdog romance. As for the title, that’s one of the catchphrases of the TV show University Challenge – based on the US show College Bowl – in which opposing teams test their status-defining cultural knowledge, while audiences at home watch the interplay between the social classes. Which is kind of what the film does too.

 

 

Starter for Ten – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

Filth

James McAvoy as the deranged cop Bruce Robertson in Filth

 

 

 

The last film I saw that had any Irvine Welsh involvement was The Magnificent 11, a comedy so peculiarly inept that I started to think it was deliberate, a tax write-off perhaps, or a spoof of depressing British comedies of the early 1970s, in which girls with blue eye-liner would shed an ill-fitting bra to reveal dog-eared breasts.

 

Jon S Baird’s adaptation of Welsh’s 1998 novel is far more what we expect from the writer of Trainspotting. Welsh has been out of fashion just long enough to be due a comeback, but is this what our New Puritan age is clamouring for – the sweary, druggy, skanky story of a very naughty Edinburgh copper?

 

The answer to that question will be weighed by the tonnage of bums on seats. Meanwhile, there’s James McAvoy’s performance to enjoy. It’s a big Oliver Reed man-beast of a turn with McAvoy as the beefy, hairy, bloky Bruce Robertson, a foul-mouthed, bipolar, sweaty Jock copper with stained teeth who is shagging, snorting and bull-charging his way towards a personal and career meltdown.

 

Outside Robertson’s head everything is Miss Jean Brodie by comparison. His fellow officers are capable, sensible, down to earth. There’s John Sessions, all bumptious authority as Robertson’s boss, while Jamie Bell and Imogen Poots are the 21st century cops who know how to bend to political correctness and how to bend it their way, unlike Robertson.

 

At the dusty Masonic meeting all of them routinely attend Robertson hooks in with a tweedy owlish character called Bladesey (Eddie Marsan), an unlikely escort towards the brink. The women in Robertson’s life are Chrissie (Kate Dickie, again heroically getting her kit off for Scotland in some athletic sex scenes), and Bunty (Shirley Henderson), whom Robertson is harassing with sex-pest phone calls, just for the hell of it.

 

With nods to Dennis Potter, when it’s not following Robertson as he ricochets through police duties, Filth plays interior fantasy as exterior reality. Most obviously in Robertson’s scene with a taxi driver (played by David Soul) as the two lip-sync along to Soul’s 1977 hit single Silver Lady while backing singers pop up from the back seat to contribute ooh-ahhs. But there are other hallucinatory episodes, in which Robertson is visited by a crackpot Australian shrink (Jim Broadbent) who goads his patient on to even worse excess. All very Singing Detective and very funny.

 

But never mind the interludes, what drove this big bad man to this pretty pass? You know, I don’t care. And I don’t think Welsh really does either. His main focus is to wind up deluded grotesques and set them off running around causing damage, most particularly to themselves. He’s never been that great at what you might call the comedown, the getout. Luckily, for the most part, what we get here is the good stuff – a violent frothing custodian of the law taunted by visions of people in animal heads as he falls apart in front of our eyes.

 

It is hugely enjoyable. But Filth also insists on being grown up and explaining things. And the more it goes into Robertson’s psychological motivation – his brother’s early death, his wife’s absence from the marital home – the less I enjoyed it. It really is a film of two parts. Part one is kept afloat by Welsh’s funny, fast and sweary energy and McAvoy’s cortisol-burning performance as a Rabelaisian monster doing what the hell he wants and succeeding because he’s smarter and more driven than the others.

 

Part two is the descent. And after the fireworks of part one, the drool and sentimentality of part two is something of a downer. And without a compensating lift in pace elsewhere, it’s not surprising that, at the cinema I saw this at, people started to shift in their seats.

 

A relation of Woody Harrelson’s cop-out-of-time in Rampart, Robertson is a brute, but he’s doing what a lot of us would like to do. He’s behaving badly and he has the wit and the balls to get away with it. As Filth hits the home straight it suddenly asks us – in a “now look, you’ve had your fun” volte-face – to engage emotionally with people we were being encouraged to laugh at only a few minutes before: bored Henderson, timid Marsan, oversexed Dickie, ridiculous Sessions. The first half of Filth is pretty near perfect and, you know, we get it, we know Robertson is not a nice man, the film’s title is more than just an allusion to a nickname for policemen generally. Director Jon Baird keeps faith with the original novel, but he loses sight a little of what has made his film so entertaining. Irvine Welsh isn’t infallible – see The Magnificent 11 for confirmation. Couldn’t the director have just sent the raging Robertson off over a cliff, Thelma and Louise style?

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013