So, it was with some fear and trepidation that I fronted up to this slightly obscure little film whose trailer doesn’t really do it justice. Here, Nighy is Alan, a lovely, quiet, contained role that is the polar opposite of the Cameron Foster character that made such an impression on me, but allows for a quintessentially Bill Nighy performance nonetheless.
Alan is a retired Merseyside tailor, an old school gentleman with a small obsession for words, especially on a scrabble board. As characterised by his son, Peter (Sam Riley) Alan is a man who would always choose the not-quite-right ‘copy’; a knock-off version of scrabble with the letters cut out of a cardboard sheet, or a Lego clone that wasn’t quite as good as the real thing. And in this little character quirk lies something that sits at the heart of the film. Alan’s son Michael has disappeared some time ago (walked out over a disputed word in a game of scrabble) and Alan’s life has become devoted to finding that lost son… at the expense of a relationship with Peter, the son who stayed. The real thing. We meet Alan and Peter as they are on their way to a village where the local coroner has an unidentified body that could be Michael. Here we also meet Margaret (Jenny Agutter) and Arthur (Tim McInnerny) who also have a missing son and who are also here to view the body. These kinds of random, off-kilter meetings and relationships are the norm for this very English film that sits somewhere between dark comedy and wry drama.
When Alan ‘pops over’ to his son’s house after they return from the viewing of the body, he not only accepts the dinner invitation from Sue (Alice Lowe) his daughter-in-law, he ends up staying several weeks, bunking in (literally) with his grandson Jack (Louis Healy) with whom he develops an entirely unexpected relationship. It’s also through Jack that we get the title of the film: Alan, the tailor, sets the rules for his grandson’s jacket - those three buttons – the top one is sometimes buttoned, the middle one is always buttoned but the bottom one is never buttoned. It’s this life of proper behaviour, etiquette and accepted ways of doing things that not only defines Alan, but make his irregular behaviour, improper actions and the breaking of etiquettes funny, moving and endearing. When Alan himself disappears, off on a potentially wild goose chase following an online scrabble clue that he’s certain will lead him to Michael, his absence becomes a galvanising force within the family and leads to an ending that isn’t quite what I expected.
This is Carl Hunter’s first outing as a feature director working with a screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Goodbye Christopher Robin, The Railway Man, 24 Hour Party People) and this partnership of highly experienced screenwriter and new director seems to pay off. Hunter has a talent for capturing this offbeat style of storytelling in a way that avoids the trickiness and self-consciousness that might otherwise be the touchstones for a film like this, and with cinematographer Richard Stoddard, the film finds a deft visual hand with moments of quite sublime photographic beauty.
In addition to Nighy’s captivating performance, Riley as the son and Healy as the grandson give lovely and compelling performances that strike a well-balanced family dynamic kept slightly off kilter by Lowe’s very funny role as the mother. And it’s great to see Jenny Agutter in a small but perfect role that reminded me of Sissy Spacek’s terrific turn opposite Robert Redford in his recent The Old Man & The Gun. In the end, Alan seems to find what we know he should have been looking for all along, and it’s mostly satisfying with the possible exception of the final image which I’m still pondering as to whether it undercuts the conclusion of the film or not. This is a small film that will come and go quite quickly. Blink and you’ll miss it. My recommendation is not to blink, and see what you make of that last shot.