Culture Representation: Taking place in the 1540s, in the United Kingdom, the dramatic film “Firebrand” (based on the novel “Queen’s Gambit: A Novel of Katherine Parr”) features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one black person and one person of Arab heritage) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and royalty.
Culture Clash: King Henry VIII’s sixth wife Katherine Parr is secretly a feminist who wants to shake up the establishment.
Culture Audience: “Firebrand” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Jude Law, Alicia Vikander, and dull period dramas about the British royal family.
Good acting from Alicia Vikander and Jude Law can’t save “Firebrand” from its plodding screenplay and lackluster direction. This revisionist drama, about the British royal family in the 1540s, distorts feminism by turning the film into a man-hating lecture. For a movie that’s supposed to be about an eventful time in British history, “Firebrand” has an awfully thin plot that gets padded with a lot of repetition. “Firebrand” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.
Directed by Karim Aïnouz, “Firebrand” is based on Elizabeth Fremantle’s 2012 book “Queen’s Gambit: A Novel of Katherine Parr.” (In real life, Katherine Parr’s name was also spelled as Catherine Parr.) Henrietta Ashworth and Jessica Ashworth, who are twin sisters, adapted the novel for the “Firebrand” screenplay. Viewers who know in advance that “Firebrand” is based on a novel, not a biography, might enjoy the movie better. However, it still doesn’t erase the movie’s problems.
“Firebrand” begins with a voiceover monologue by a teenager whom viewers later find out is King Henry VIII’s daughter Princess Elizabeth (played by Junia Rees), who will be the future Queen Elizabeth I. Princess Elizabeth says: “In a rotten, blood-soaked island kingdom cursed by plague and driven by religious unrest, there once was a queen by the name of Katherine Parr. She was the sixth wife of an angry and ailing king.”
Princess Elizabeth continues: “Of the wives who had gone before, two were cast out, one died in childbirth, and two had their heads struck from their bodies, on the king’s order. Twice a widow, but not yet to conceive a child herself, Queen Katherine gathered the other wives’ children around her, and loved us as her own.”
The monologue continues, “She is the only mother I have ever known. The queen believed in a land free of tyranny. She believed she could steer the kingdom to the light. When the king went to war across the sea, Queen Katherine was made regent. For a moment, it was as though a great weight had lifted and a new dawn was approaching.”
An early scene in the movie shows Queen Katherine (played by Vikander) in a wooded area, where she is watching a religious and political activist named Anne Askew (played by Erin Doherty) give a fiery speech to a small group of people assembled around her. “We must rise up and take what’s ours!” shouts Anne. “Revolution is upon us. The king will be with us, or we well go without him!”
Anne sees Katherine nearby and smirks at Katherine before walking away. Anne and Katherine have not seen each other in seven years. And it would be scandalous if King Henry VIII or anyone else in the royal court found out that Katherine was at at this political rally. (“Firebrand” was actually filmed in the German cities of Reinbek and Hamburg, which look convincing as 1540s England.)
When Katherine and Anne have a private moment together in the woods, Katherine tells Anne that King Henry VIII respects Katherine. She tells Anne: “I believe I was chosen to change the king’s mind.” Anne is skeptical. And it turns out that Anne is right.
King Henry VIII (played by Law) returns from the war. He’s every bit the self-centered brute that someone is to be cruel enough to have spouses murdered by execution, just to end the marriages. The king has gout (shown in graphic details in the movie), but that doesn’t stop him from having passionless sex with Katherine, who doesn’t enjoy these encounters but endures them because she doesn’t want ill-tempered Henry to get angry at her. Katherine wants to placate Henry because she wants him to agree with some ideas she has to give women more rights.
Over time, Katherine finally sees the obvious: Henry isn’t going to change his misogynistic ways anytime soon. He does things such as openly flirt with would-be mistresses right in front of Katherine and other people seated at the royal dining table. In this dinner flirtation, Katherine is hostile to the giggling younger woman named Agnes Howard (played by Anna Mawn), who flirts back with Henry, even though Henry (not Agnes) is more at fault.
Meanwhile, Henry hears gossip that Katherine has been hanging out with Anne, who is considered a radical disrupter. Katherine denies it. What’s a secretive, ahead-of-her-time “feminist” to do? She pretends to be a devoted and submissive wife who goes along with whatever her husband wants until she can figure out a way to outsmart him. That’s essentially what takes up about 70% of “Firebrand,” in very tedious scenes that don’t do much to further the story.
Historical figures such as Princess Elizabeth, Princess Mary (played by Patsy Ferran), Prince Edward (played by Patrick Buckley), Thomas Seymour (played by Sam Riley) and Edward Seymour (played by Eddie Marsan) come and go in the movie like background characters. Thomas and Edward were the brothers of Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife, who died in 1537, shortly after giving birth to the future King Edward VI. Thomas and Katherine were in a romantic relationship before she married Henry, but she chose to marry Henry because he was the king. That intriguing backstory is barely acknowledged in the movie.
Instead of looking like a feminist, as the movie intended, Katherine just looks like someone with delusions of grandeur in thinking that she can change a murderous misogynist like Henry, just by being cute and adoring to him. Katherine also has a catty attitude toward women who make themselves available for meaningless flings to Henry, who doesn’t really love and respect Katherine anyway. It’s also questionable if Katherine’s “feminist” plans are really for the good of all women in the kingdom, or are really ways to gain more power for herself.
Worst of all, even with Katherine’s scheming and trying to fool herself into thinking that she can outwit Henry, she does the most soap opera-ish thing that someone can do in her situation. Katherine’s way of solving her problem doesn’t involve any intelligence. It’s a heinous copout that doesn’t make Katherine any better than some of the corrupt people she acts like she detests.
“Firebrand” is the type of movie that gets it right when it comes to technical crafts, such as production design, costume design and musical score. And there’s nothing terribly wrong with the acting performances in the movie. Law as the villainous Henry is much more entertaining to watch than Vikander’s somewhat muted interpretation of pseudo-feminist Katherine. Even with these assets in “Firebrand,” the movie’s message is very misguided in how problems are dealt with at the end of the story, even if it’s complete fiction.
Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in an unnamed city in England, the dramatic film “She Is Love” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: Two former spouses, who haven’t seen or spoken to each other in 10 years, have an awkward reunion when she checks into the inn where he lives with his current girlfriend, who owns the inn.
Culture Audience: “She Is Love” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching aimless movies that have no real plot and mainly show people looking and acting uncomfortable with each other.
Everything about the rambling drama “She Is Love” looks like an improvisational sketch that was dragged into an unnecessary and tedious movie. The cast members are talented, but the characters they play are empty and annoying. The movie’s fake-looking ending looks like a lazy cop-out that doesn’t ring true. It’s one of many misguided aspects of this dreadfully dull film.
Written and directed by Jamie Adams, “She Is Love” had its world premiere at the 2022 BFI London Film Festival. The movie takes place in an unnamed city in England, primarily at one location: a bed-and-breakfast inn. In the beginning of the movie, it’s a Friday, and a restless woman named Patricia (played by Haley Bennett), who also goes by the name Pat, has arrived at the inn because her boyfriend Taylor (voiced by Jay Jippet) has booked a room for her at the inn.
Patricia is a creator of TV shows, and she travels a lot for her job. It’s vaguely explained that she’s at the inn on some sort of vacation where she wants to spend some time alone. The movie’s story begins on a Friday and ends on a Sunday. By the end of this weekend, Patricia will not only have the opposite of a vacation of solitude, she’s also so “in your face” irritating, viewers of “She Is Love” will want to Patricia to go away.
The first thing that Patricia does when she checks into her room is complain. She mutters to herself, “This room is ugly.” It doesn’t take long before her so-called restful vacation gets interrupted by loud music coming from another room. Patricia goes to the source of the noise and sees a musician named Idris (played by Sam Riley) playing music on DJ equipment, as if he’s in a nightclub. Idris and Patricia look at each other in shock. She’s so in shock, she quickly walks out of the room.
Idris follows her and says, “I’m sorry about the noise. I didn’t know anyone was here.” Patricia says to him, “What are you doing here?” Idris replies, “I kind of live here. I can’t believe it. The last I heard, you were living in America.” It’s soon revealed how Patricia and Idris know each other: They used to be married to each other, they got divorced, and they haven’t seen or spoken to each other in about 10 years.
Patricia insists that she’s at this inn purely as a coincidence, because her boyfriend booked the room at the inn for her. More awkwardness ensues because the person who owns the inn and lives there too is Idris’ current girlfriend Louise (played by Marisa Abela), a perky aspiring actress who’s about 15 years younger than 39-year-old Idris. Quicker than you can say “formulaic sitcom idea,” Louise suddenly comes home to tell Idris the good news that she got a role that she really wanted. Idris nervously steers Louise outside and doesn’t want her to go inside until he tells her the news that his ex-wife unexpectedly showed up and is staying at the inn.
Idris tells Louise it’s a bizarre coincidence that Patricia is a guest at the inn, and he assures Louise that nothing is going to happen between him and Patricia. And what a coincidence: Louise has to go out of town for a few days because of this new acting job. The rest of the movie shows what happens when Patricia and Idris spend a lot of time alone together, get drunk, and act like people who have too much time on their hands but have nothing meaningful to say for most of that time. It’s all just so boring to watch.
Bennett and Riley seem to be attempting to make Patricia and Idris believable as an ex-couple with unresolved feelings for each other. The problem is that it never looks genuine that these two were ever in love. Anything that’s supposed to pass for “sexual tension” between Patricia and Idris just come across as forced. And to make matters worse, insufferable Patricia is so insulting to Idris, it’s even harder to believe that Idris could possibly be falling back in love with her.
In one of their early “reunion” conversations, Idris (who performs in a semi-famous rock band) tells Patricia that he’s still a musician. Patricia rudely says, “So, you’re doing the same thing. I’m a bit disappointed.” It’s quite the display of disrespectful and condescending judgment from someone who has no say in how Idris should lead his life and what should make him happy.
Later, when Idris and Patricia have a drunken argument, she says to him: “You can’t deal with anyone broken. That’s why you go for Louise.” Irdrs replies, “You break everything you touch!” And then, Patricia shows how cruel she can be when she says to Idris: “The only good thing about you is your dad. And he’s dead.”
“She Is Love” is a misnomer, because Patricia is not a very loving or lovable person. The movie becomes a slog of Patricia and Idris lurching from drunken activity to drunken activity, all while having witless conversations. They play tennis while intoxicated. They put on face powder, wear white clothes, and run around the inn, as they pretend that they are ghosts.
And (cliché alert), at one point, Idris brings out his acoustic guitar and plays a drippy love song about you-know-who. And through it all, Idris and Patricia continue to argue. It’s as if Patricia and Idris are trying to convince themselves that maybe they’re smart and interesting, but the results prove that they are just the opposite.
Another thing that looks phony about this movie is that for an inn of this size (it looks like there are at about six to eight bedrooms), no one seems to be taking care of this property except Louise and Idris. There are no signs of any maids, caretakers, maintenance workers or cooks. Even if business is slow, it’s hard to believe that Louise and Idris are doing all the physical upkeep of this property all by themselves.
Louise is preoccupied with auditions, while Idris just seems to lounge around the inn and play music when he’s in between gigs. The inn has one quasi-receptionist named Kate (played by Rosa Robson), who walks around with a clipboard and doesn’t seem to do much. Kate certainly isn’t scrubbing toilets, cleaning up the yard, or fixing broken equipment.
It’s an example of how the filmmakers of “She Is Love” couldn’t adequately make a cinematic experience from this very poorly conceived story that has a virtually non-existent plot. At best, “She Is Love” is a story that should have been a very short sketch. It’s too bad that the filmmakers decided to pad it with too much shallow filler and make it into a very disappointing 82-minute movie.
Brainstorm Media released “She Is Love” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on February 3, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place in France (and briefly in Poland) from 1878 to 1934, the biographical drama “Radioactive” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians and black people) representing the middle-class in telling the story of scientist Marie Curie.
Culture Clash: Curie battled against sexism and xenophobia, and she was at the center of a scandal when her affair with a married man went public.
Culture Audience: “Radioactive” will appeal primarily to people who like biopics about scientists or women who break through in male-dominated professions, with an emphasis on melodrama over substance.
Watching a biographical movie about a scientist, even if the scientist is a world-famous pioneer, might not appeal to a lot of people. And it’s a greater challenge when the story is set more than a century ago. But perhaps to ward off any potential viewer boredom, the filmmakers of the Marie Curie biopic “Radioactive” made the movie as if it’s a both a music video (with lots of flashy, quick-cutting editing) and a melodrama (with plenty of soap opera-type dialogue and over-acting). It’s an overcompensation that ultimately sinks this movie, which had the potential to be a fascinating, award-worthy film, but instead ended up as an unevenly toned misfire.
It’s clear that “Radioactive” was intended to be an “Oscar bait” movie, considering that it was partially financed by Working Title, a British production company that has won several Academy Awards for its films, including 2017’s “Darkest Hour,” 2014’s “The Theory of Everything” and 2012’s “Les Misérables.” “Radioactive” cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle won an Oscar for 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire.” And several Oscar nominees were involved in making the film, including star Rosamund Pike (who plays Marie Curie); director Marjane Satrapi (“Persepolis”); and producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner.
However, all that talent still doesn’t make “Radioactive” an Oscar-worthy film. Jack Thorne (who has done work mostly in British television) wrote the screenplay as an adaptation from Lauren Redniss’ graphic novel “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout.” And that’s exactly what the movie looks like on screen: a movie version of a graphic novel.
Scenes that would have benefited from richly witty conversations and glorious, lingering camera shots are instead served with basic, simplistic dialogue and whiplash-like editing that cuts a scene like boxy panels in a graphic novel. Pike certainly gives it her all in this performance, but she’s hemmed in by the hokey screenplay that portrays Marie Curie as less like a brilliant scientist and more like a whiny and egotistical shrew.
The movie begins in Paris in 1934, the year that Marie died of Aplastic anemia from exposure to radiation, at the age of 66. Marie is being rushed to a hospital, and while she’s lying on a gurney, she starts having flashbacks of her life. Those flashbacks are the majority of this story.
The flashbacks begin in Paris in 1893, when an unmarried Marie (whose maiden name was Skłodowska) was the only female scientist working in the University of Paris industrial laboratory of Professor Gabriel Lippmann (played by Simon Russell Beale). Marie, a native of Poland who moved to Paris for her university studies, had changed her first name from Maria to Marie, in order to better fit in with French citizens. In 1893, she had earned a degree in physics and was enrolled in a graduate program while working at Lippmann’s lab. (She would eventually earn a doctorate, supervised by Lippmann, in 1903.)
The movie doesn’t waste time in trumpeting its intent to show Marie as a feisty feminist who constantly has to battle sexism and misogyny. The first flashback scene is of Marie storming into a room where Lippmann and his all-male team of colleagues are seated. She angrily demands to know why her lab equipment has been moved again.
Lippmann tells Marie that it’s because her lab equipment takes up too much space. When she mentions that some of her male colleagues have lab equipment that takes up even more space than her equipment does, Lippmann tells her that she’s been fired. When she protests her dismissal, Lippmann tells her that if she doesn’t like it, she can start her own lab. Marie replies dejectedly that she doesn’t have the funds.
Meanwhile, Marie and a handsome stranger see each other on a street and make small talk. She sees this stranger again while they happen to be attending the same dance performance. They find themselves standing right next to each other, as they watch a female dancer twirling around in a white flowing costume, like she’s auditioning for a Cirque du Soleil show in a future century. This is the “meet cute” moment, because he is a scientist/professor whose name is Pierre Curie (played by Sam Riley), and he confesses to Marie that he’s been admiring her from afar.
Pierre tells Marie that he already knows her name and who she is because (1) “You’re one of only 23 female scientists with the department; (2) I’ve heard about your run-ins with Professor Lippmann; and (3) I read your paper on the magnetic properties of steel. It contains some exceptional science.” Of course, Marie is flattered by his compliment and gives Pierre a compliment too: “I have read your paper on crystallization, which I enjoyed very much.”
In real life, Pierre and Marie were introduced by a mutual friend, but that might have been too boring for the filmmakers, so they invented this scene to make Marie and Pierre’s “meet cute” scene seem more romantic, since the dance performance is filmed to make everything look more fantastically beautiful. At the time that Marie and Pierre met, he was an instructor at the City of Paris Industrial Physics and Chemistry Higher Educational Institution. But Pierre had his own up-and-down relationship with the University of Paris (which was his alma mater too), so Pierre and Marie bond over being “misunderstood” by the university, and they connect over their mutual love of science.
Pierre offers Marie a room to work in his lab. She politely declines, and then she changes her mind after he invites her to look at the work space. Marie firmly tells Pierre that she will not be his mistress, in case he thinks that she’s supposed to repay him by letting him have sex with her. Pierre says that it isn’t his intention, but he does tell her with that certain look in his eye: “I have an instinct about you.”
Of course, since most people watching this movie already know that Marie and Pierre ended up falling in love and getting married, this part of the relationship is shown very quickly. The next thing you know, after a few scenes of Marie and Pierre working together, he proposes (in the most soap opera-ish way possible), they’re married and then expecting their first child.
“Radioactive” does not show much of Marie’s life before she moved to Paris, except for flashbacks of her as a child (played by Harriet Turnbull) having grief-filled moments visiting her terminally ill mother (played by Georgina Rich) in a hospital. (Marie’s mother Bronisława died of tuberculosis when Marie was 10 years old.) According to the movie, this trauma led to Marie’s lifelong fear of being in a hospital. This fear is portrayed in the movie as full-blown panic attacks whenever Marie is asked to go to a hospital and ends up refusing to go.
The only other link to Marie’s Polish past that’s portrayed in the movie is Marie’s sister Bronisława, also known as Bronia (played by Sian Brooke), who was older than Marie by two years and was Marie’s closest female confidant. Bronia doesn’t do much in this movie except give calm and supportive advice when Marie inevitably has to rant or complain about something. (And she gets angry a lot in this movie.)
It’s clear that the filmmakers didn’t want “Radioactive” to be a movie that’s “too smart” for the general public, so Marie and Pierre’s scientific work is explained and depicted in the simplest of terms. When the couple gets a lab in Versailles, France, they discover and present two new elements: polonium and radium. Marie also coins the term “radioactivity.”
Marie and Pierre get widespread acclaim, while viewers of this movie have to sit through a lot of cringeworthy dialogue, with Marie and Pierre saying things like, “We have changed science forever” and “I can feel our work glowing out. I can feel it changing the world.” And if these “change the world” proclamations weren’t enough, “Radioactive” has several moments that cut into the story to actually show examples how the Curies’ discoveries were used in the future.
There’s the scene of a Japanese father and son experiencing the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. There’s the scene of an atomic bomb being tested in Nevada in 1961, complete with a model house being bombed and life-sized dolls melting inside. There’s the scene of Russian workers rushing in a panic during the Chernobyl accident in 1986.
Of course, when two spouses work together, there are bound to be conflicts and ego clashes. In 1903, Marie, Pierre and Henri Becquerel were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. Marie’s name was added only after Pierre insisted on it because of her crucial contributions to their discoveries. And so, Marie made history by becoming the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize in science.
However, because she was a woman, Marie was not allowed to give a speech at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm. Pierre says in the movie that Marie could have attended the ceremony, but she declined because she had recently given birth. This is a factual error in the movie, because Pierre and Marie were awarded the Nobel Prize in December 1903. They had two daughters: Irène (born in 1897) and Ève (born in 1904). Ève was born in December 1904, a full year after that Nobel Prize ceremony.
And in the movie, it’s shown that Marie gets very angry with Pierre for deciding to go to the ceremony without her. Did she really expect him to stay at home with her and not go to the ceremony to accept this prestigious award on behalf of both of them? Yes, according to this movie.
Even though Pierre effusively gave praise and credit to Marie in his Nobel Prize speech, that’s still not enough for Marie. When Pierre gets home, she rips into him, as if he committed a major betrayal. As far as Marie is concerned, she did more work than Pierre did, and therefore she deserves more recognition and praise than he gets.
And she cruelly tells Pierre that she will always be smarter than he is. “You stole my brilliance!” she shrieks at him during one of their quarrels over him attending the Nobel Prize ceremony without her. We’ll never know if Marie ever uttered those words to Pierre, but the movie definitely portrays Pierre as a long-suffering husband who has to put up with a mean-spirited wife who has a massive ego.
No one is expecting Marie Curie to be put on a pedestal and look like a saint. But one of the problems with “Radioactive” is that it doesn’t really show Marie being a lot more brilliant than her husband, to justify all the arrogance she has in the movie. The movie shows them working side-by-side as, more or less, equal partners.
And all the temper tantrums that Marie has in “Radioactive” make her look unprofessional to the point where the movie undermines any respect that the filmmakers might have intended for this pioneering scientist. To make matters worse, “Radioactive” continues down the soap opera route when it shows Marie’s life after Pierre tragically died in a carriage accident in 1906.
Marie is understandably devastated by this loss. The movie portrays Marie as someone who was so overcome with grief over Pierre’s death that she began to have hallucinations/visions of seeing him. You get the feeling that the filmmakers would’ve gone as far as Marie consulting a psychic to talk to Pierre from the dead, but that wouldn’t be very scientific, would it?
Instead, there’s a scene where Marie has a breakdown with a photographer, because in Marie’s distraught state of mind, she thinks that there can be a photo conjured up of the spirit of her husband. “Please let me see my husband again!” she shouts numerous times in this over-the-top scene. It looks like a series of retakes from a soap opera.
Two close friends of Marie and Pierre Curie are a married couple named Paul Langevin (played by Anuerin Barnard) and Jeanne Langevin (played by Katherine Parkinson), who are seen earlier in the movie having a pleasant couples dinner with Marie and Pierre. But after Pierre dies, Marie and Paul end up having an affair, and he moves in with her.
The way that the affair is portrayed in the movie, Marie tells Paul that she isn’t in love with him, but he’s clearly in love with her. Marie is obviously using Paul as a way to cope with her grief. And the film makes this abundantly clear when it shows Marie waking up next to Paul and initially hallucinating that Pierre is in his place.
Marie also doesn’t seem too concerned about how this infidelity relationship is affecting her two young children. When Irène and Ève see that their mother has a new man in her bed, and they go in her bedroom to try to talk to her, she asks them if they are hungry. When they say no, she then coldly dismisses them and tells them that if they’re not hungry, then they need to leave her alone.
Of course, the affair causes a major scandal when it’s made public. In the movie, Paul’s wife Jeanne tells Marie that she hired a private investigator and leaked information about the affair to the press. Marie is then the target of intense bullying by strangers, who yell ethnic insults at her about her Polish heritage and tell to go back to Poland.
And so, by the time Marie won her second Nobel Prize (this time for chemistry) in 1911, there was a lot of controversy over her getting the prize because of the scandal in her personal life. People not only protested that she was attending the ceremony but also that she received the prize in the first place. (The movie doesn’t really address the hypocrisy of people never protesting over the untold number of male Nobel Prize winners who openly committed adultery.) Marie was allowed to give a speech at that Nobel Prize ceremony, but the scandal and controversy really tainted what could have been a completely triumphant moment.
Irène is shown as a young woman (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) who would also become a scientist, but the young-adult Irène doesn’t have enough screen time in the movie to get a good sense of what kind of mentorship she got from her mother. It’s yet another missed opportunity in a movie that is more concerned about showing Marie being self-absorbed in her own achievements and the recognition that she thinks she deserved.
Marie Curie remains the only woman to win a Nobel Prize in two scientific fields. But all of her accomplishments and intellectual prowess are devalued by the way “Radioactive” reduces her story to a melodrama. The movie frames her major life events as results of a relationship with whichever man she was sleeping with at the time.
If you were to believe what’s in this movie, Marie saw her first Nobel Prize not as an achievement that she could proudly share with her husband but as a weapon to use against him out of spite, just because other people didn’t want her to give an acceptance speech at the ceremony. That is one of the lasting impressions of Marie Curie that “Radioactive” wants to give, but surely her legacy deserves better.
Prime Video premiered “Radioactive” on July 24, 2020.
Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed cities in England, the comedy drama “Sometimes Always Never” has almost all white cast (with one biracial/black character) representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: A tailor and his adult son have emotional tensions with each other, stemming from the childhood disappearance of the tailor’s other son.
Culture Audience: “Sometimes Always Never” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Bill Nighy and dry British humor.
Bill Nighy tends to play a lot of characters with a droll sense of humor, so the dark comedy/drama “Sometimes Always Never” is right up his alley. This quirky film, which takes place in suburban England, won’t appeal to everyone, but viewers who enjoy “Sometimes Always Never” will probably like the film more for the actors’ performances than for the movie’s somewhat thin plot.
Directed by Carl Hunter and written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, “Sometimes Always Never” focuses mainly on the tension-filled relationship between a widowed tailor named Alan Mellor (played by Nighy) and his son Peter (played by Sam Riley), who can’t go a day together without bickering with each other. The reason they don’t seem to particularly get along is because years ago, when Peter was a boy, his brother Michael disappeared after storming out of their home during an argument while Michael was playing Scrabble with Peter and Alan. Michael has remained missing all these years later.
The mystery of Michael’s disappearance has affected both men in different ways, even though they both have similar unspoken resentment and guilt over the disappearance. Alan thinks Michael might still be alive, while Peter is convinced that Michael is probably dead.
Alan has become obsessed with Scrabble and finds any way he can to conjure up theories that he can somehow find Michael again by playing Scrabble. He plays Scrabble online and tells Peter about on online rapport he’s developed with a Scrabble gamer who goes by the name Skinny Thesaurus. Peter says he hates Scrabble and expresses his distaste over Alan’s far-fetched theories and continued obsession with this word game.
Alan is so stuck in the past over Michael’s disappearance that he still hands out a missing-person photo of Michael to strangers, even though the photo is of Michael as a child. It’s one of the first things that viewers see Alan doing in the movie’s opening scene, which takes place at an almost deserted beach.
Peter meets Alan at the beach to pick him up in his car, so they can go on a solemn journey together. The reason for this out-of-town trip? A body has been found that could be Michael. Alan and Peter have to travel to the morgue to identify the body.
During the trip, the father and son trade verbal barbs at each other, including their ongoing debates about synonyms and what words can legitimately be used in a Scrabble game. Peter is impatient about this trip and tells Alan that he’s got to go back as soon as possible to his wife, Sue (played by Alice Lowe), who’s a chemical scientist. Alan says to Peter, “I’m sure I’m going deaf. I don’t hear half of what you say.”
When Alan and Peter check into their hotel, the bickering continues. In the hotel lounge, they meet a married couple named Arthur (played by Tim McInnerny) and Margaret (played by Jenny Agutter) and make some small talk. The conversation inevitably turns to Scrabble, and it isn’t long before Alan, Margaret and Arthur start playing Scrabble together in the lounge, while Peter has left to go to his hotel room.
While Arthur takes a restroom break, Margaret confides in Alan that her husband used to be a singer who would record albums of cover songs for record companies looking to cash in on hits that were popular at the time. One of the cover songs he recorded is Bonnie Tyler’s “It’s a Heartache,” which is heard later in the story. Margaret also tells Alan that the reason why she and Arthur are in town is because they have to identify the body of their son who went missing when he was a child.
During the Scrabble game, Alan doesn’t tell Margaret and Arthur that he’s in town for the same reason. Arthur and Margaret find out the next day when they see Alan and Peter at the morgue at the same time. (It’s revealed in the movie if the child at the morgue is from either family.)
Peter gets very upset when he finds out that Alan was a fierce competitor with Arthur during the Scrabble game, and Alan ended up winning £200 from Arthur. Peter offers to pay back the money to Arthur and Margaret, but they politely decline. Peter scolds Alan for taking advantage of the couple, knowing that they are going through the same trauma of identifying the body. Alan just shrugs and says that he couldn’t help himself.
During the trip, Alan stays with Peter and his family, which includes Peter and Susie’s teenage son Jack (played by Louis Healy), a loner who spends most of his free time playing online video games. When Alan tells Peter that he’s concerned about Jack spending so much time on the computer, Peter replies: “Why would that be a worry? He’s at home. He’s not on the streets. He hasn’t gone missing.” Ouch.
As the story unfolds, there are other things that Peter brings up from the past when he argues with Alan. Peter hated that Alan had a habit of giving Peter cheap toys and games that were knock-offs of the originals. And because Peter’s mother died when he was a child (it isn’t specified when she passed away), Peter still feels resentment that he was raised by a father who focused a lot of energy on finding Michael.
There’s a minor subplot of the dynamics between Jack and his adult relatives. Jack and Alan form somewhat of a kinship when Alan becomes fascinated with Jack’s online computer games. Meanwhile, Sue has a habit of embarrassing Jack at bus stops, where he meticulously plans to be at the same time as a teenage girl named Rachel (played by Ella-Grace Gregoire), whom Jack has had a crush on for a while.
As for the movie’s title of “Sometimes Always Never,” that comes from a scene in the film where Alan is showing Jack some tailoring tips for suits. Alan tells Jack that when it comes to a suit jacket’s first three buttons, the first one should “sometimes” be buttoned, the second one should “always” be button, and the third should “never” be buttoned.
Alan has his own tailor shop (called Mellors Tailors) but the movie shows him doing very little work in his chosen profession. There’s that grandfather-grandson scene with Alan and Jack. And there’s another scene where Alan is shown alone at the shop, as if business is slow. Alan’s line of work actually isn’t that necessary for the plot, and the only real purpose is seemingly because the button advice he gave Jack ended up being used as the movie’s title.
There’s a scene in the movie where Alan, Sue, Jack and Rachel are playing a Scrabble board game together. Peter is watching nearby. Alan questions Sue’s use of a scientific word, while Peter tells Alan not to question his wife’s scientific knowledge. Alan persists anyway and looks up the validity of the word in a dictionary. Peter explodes with anger.
It’s clear that what Peter is angry about is really not about Alan questioning Sue’s word knowledge but about feeling like an outsider in his own household. And perhaps there’s some jealousy that Alan is forming a closer bond to Jack than Peter even had with Alan. And things get even more tense when Alan becomes convinced that an anonymous online Scrabble gamer is really the missing Michael who’s sending clues about his whereabouts.
“Sometimes Always Never” frequently uses a technique of having a particular word and its definition shown before each of the movie’s three acts. The movie has the look and feel of a stage play, not just because there’s a small number of people in the cast but also because of the lo-fi production design by Tim Dickel and art direction by Guto Humphreys. (The driving scenes in the car were obviously done in front of a green or blue screen.)
The visual look of the movie (from cinematographer Richard Stoddard) is kind modern yet retro, with copious use of low lighting for the interior scenes. Almost all of the buildings in the film have interior walls painted green, blue and red. These bright colors for walls in houses or a hotel are not very common for suburban England. It seems as if the filmmakers wanted to give the impression that this is a more whimsical England, compared to what’s normally seen in movies.
Although the acting from Nighy and Riley is very good, and the movie does a convincing flipping of traditional parent-child roles (Alan is impulsive and slightly rebellious, while Peter is more cautious and scolding), “Sometimes Always Never” has pacing that’s a little too sluggish at times. People will enjoy this movie best if they’ve got about 90 minutes to spare and aren’t expecting a lot of fast-paced action, loads of suspense or obvious jokes.
Blue Fox Entertainment released “Sometimes Always Never” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on June 12, 2020. The film’s U.S. digital and VOD release is on July 10, 2020. “Sometimes Always Never” was originally released in the United Kingdom and several other countries in 2019.