Sometimes Always Never Review (4 Stars) Bill Nighy Spellbinding in Scrabble Drama
By Peter Bradshaw / The Guardian
The veteran actor shines as an ageing word wizard searching for his estranged son in Carl Hunter’s kind-hearted debut
There’s a beguiling Englishness to this elegant, offbeat comedy-drama, terrifically written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and directed by feature debutant Carl Hunter. It has a wonderful syncopation in its writerly rhythm and narrative surprises. The film positively twinkles with insouciance, and is performed with aplomb, particularly by Bill Nighy, who brings a droll sprightliness and deadpan wit to the lead part, but shows how these mannerisms mask emotional pain. Sam Riley is excellent as the character’s long-suffering son.
Nighy plays Alan, a retired Merseyside tailor – and Nighy nails an engaging and consistent voice, sounding like a kind of donnish Ringo Starr. The actor shows how his character, a formidable and quietly intelligent man, has retreated into his habits and eccentricities to shield himself from the cares of the world. Long ago, Alan’s favourite son left home, never to return. In the decades since, Alan has searched for him, a quest that has sparked mixed feelings in the heart of his other, now grownup son Peter (Riley) who feels that he was always second-best.
But Alan has fixated on one thing in particular: the fact that his son stormed out over an ostensible argument over Scrabble, and whether the two-letter word “Zo” was admissible. Now Alan is obsessed with Scrabble; he is a grandmaster, a black-belt, even hustling unsuspecting players he meets in B&Bs – a funny and unexpected interlude with a couple played by Tim McInnerny and Jenny Agutter. But while staying with Peter, his wife Sue (Alice Lowe) and their withdrawn teen son Jack (Louis Healy), things reach a crisis. Playing Scrabble online, Alan encounters a virtual opponent whose style he recognises – and who deploys the controversial word “Zo”. Is someone trying to get in touch?
The Scrabble and Scrabble-obsession are emblems of a complex sort of communication crisis. Alan’s mastery of the game has taken him along a certain type of loneliness spectrum. He is simultaneously very good with words and absolutely terrible with them. He can’t make contact with Peter and Peter can’t make contact with him.
And yet, Alan has far from given up on life: to Peter’s exasperation and dismay, he continues to be an assertive personality, airily dapper, liking everything just so in ways that can’t simply be written off as dysfunctional. He has a positive effect on Jack, showing him the correct way to wear a suit (the title refers to the jacket’s three buttons, top, middle, bottom, and which may be done up). The “tailoring-mentoring” scenes here incidentally have a thousand times more wit and humanity than those in the boorish Kingsman films.
Riley, Lowe, McInnerny and Agutter are all superb in their roles and the Scrabble face-off with McInnerny in an early scene – together with its highly surprising second encounter the following morning – is carried off with wit and flair. This film is a distinct, articulate pleasure.
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