SOMETIMES ALWAYS NEVER ★★★½
PG, 91 minutes
The appeal of a Bill Nighy character is hard to pin down. While his overall attitude to life is pessimistic, an irresistible desire to look for the joke lurking behind the bad news keeps breaking through and brightening the picture.
Sam Riley and Bill Nighy play a father and son struggling to communicate in Sometimes Always Never.Credit:paul stephenson
Alan, the driven but dithering hero of Sometimes Always Never is just such a person. He has every reason to regard himself as a tragic figure. His younger son has been missing for decades and he still has no idea if he's dead or alive yet his ingrained sense of the ridiculous has a way of impinging on his grief.
He's the creation of British screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, once a regular collaborator with Michael Winterbottom. More recently, he's been working with Danny Boyle and with Carl Hunter, who directed this, his first feature.
Bill Nighy plays a father seeking answers about his missing son in Sometimes Always Never.
It's Hunter's background in graphic design, together with his interest in the films of two great screen eccentrics, Aki Kaurismaki and Wes Anderson, which help to shape the film's style. While the story is set in Lancashire and Merseyside, places with a prominent role in the history of British social realism, Hunter has given the film a fairytale quality, together with a peculiar sense of timelessness. While mobile phones and computer games have their role to play, we're regularly plunged back into the 1950s with driving sequences featuring a deliberately clunky version of back projection.
Alan, too, is an artefact from the past. His tailor's shop seems bereft of customers and when we first meet him, he's standing on the beach under a black umbrella, gazing across a smoothly gleaming ocean towards a pastel-coloured skyline as if waiting for a ship that is destined never to come in. He seems becalmed, which is exactly the impression that Hunter is out to create.
Alan and his elder son, Peter (Sam Riley), are meeting to go to a morgue to view an unidentified body that could be that of Michael, Peter's brother, who hasn't been seen since he walked out on a family Scrabble game at the age of 17.
Scrabble is the film's central motif. Alan is a devotee while Peter pretends not to be – a difference that is emblematic of their stalled relationship. Since Michael's disappearance, they have struggled to find the right words to communicate with one another and as their search goes on, the film looks less like a missing person mystery than a story about the fractured relations between father and son.
It's also a film about charm. The plot – what there is of it – is episodic with every vignette crafted to highlight the idiosyncrasies of one character or another. Jenny Agutter and Tim McInnerny have their turn as Margaret and Arthur, a couple who are also mourning a missing son, which doesn't stop Alan from hustling Arthur into losing a $200 bet over a Scrabble game.
Too often, the script doggedly pushes the Scrabble metaphor as far as it can go. At other times, it hits the right note. It's at its most adroit in the scenes between Alan and his teenage grandson, Jack (Louis Healy), who's having his own communication problems. Not only has he stopped talking to his parents, he finds it impossible to open a conversation with the girl he fancies.
It's Alan who finally breaks through while sharing a room with his grandson because there's nowhere else for him to sleep. At first, Jack regards him as an unwelcome piece of furniture. Then, as Alan's inexhaustible curiosity goes to work, Jack starts to find his voice.
Riley's Peter is not so lucky. The script short-changes him. He's stuck, obsessed by the grudge he's been harbouring against his father since childhood. There's little rapport between the pair, and it matters; the film's charms eventually fade to the point where Nighy's comic timing is the only thing it has going for it. Sadly, that's not enough to sustain the pace as the script limps towards its gentle conclusion.
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