Review: ‘Sometimes Always Never,’ starring Bill Nighy, Sam Riley, Jenny Agutter, Tim McInnerny and Alice Lowe

June 15, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sam Riley and Bill Nighy in “Sometimes Always Never” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“Sometimes Always Never”

Directed by Carl Hunter

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.

Jenny McGutter and Tim McInnerny in “Sometimes Always Never” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

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.

Review: ‘The Windermere Children,’ starring Thomas Kretschmann, Romola Garai, Tim McInnerny, Iain Glen, Tomasz Studzinski and Kacper Swietek

April 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

“The Windermere Children,” pictured from left to right: Anna Maciejewska, Tomasz Studzinski, Lukasz Zieba, Kuba Sprenger, Marek Wrobelewski, Jakub Jankiewicz, Pascal Fischer and Kacper Swietek (Photo courtesy of PBS)

“The Windermere Children”

Directed by Michael Samuels 

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1945, shortly near the end of World War II, the drama “The Windermere Children” is based on a true story of how a group of Jewish orphans who survived the Holocaust are brought to a group home in England to start new lives.

Culture Clash: The orphans experience difficult recoveries from their trauma, as well as anti-Semitism from some of the local residents.

Culture Audience: “The Windermere Children” will appeal mostly to people who are interested in stories about orphans or Holocaust survivors.

Thomas Kretschmann (standing) in “The Windermere Children” (Photo courtesy of PBS)

Most stories about Holocaust survivors tend to be about what their lives are like years after World War II ended. But the dramatic film “The Windermere Children” (which is inspired by true events) tells the story of what happened in August 1945, shortly near the official end of World War II, when a group of about 300 Jewish orphans were brought from continental Europe (many were from Poland) to an estate in England as refugees. Because almost all of the children did not have relatives to claim them, the orphans had to start new lives in England.

Almost all of the children survived concentration camps and are going through severe trauma. They arrive by bus to Calgarth Estate, which is located by Lake Windermere. The estate has been turned into a group home for the children, whose transition and rehabilitation will be aided by a group of counselors and volunteers. Leading this group is German psychologist Oscar Friedmann (played by Thomas Kretschmann), whose specialty is child psychology.

Other people who are part of the team are athletic coach Jock Lawrence (played by Ian Glen); art therapist Marie Paneth (Romola Garai); philanthropist Leonard Montefiore (Tim McInnerny); and married couple Georg Lauer (played by Philipp Christopher) and Edith Lauer (Anna Schumacher). Friedmann used to run an institution for troubled boys in Germany, but nothing quite prepares him for what he will experience with these orphans.

“The Windemere Children” (Michael Samuels and written by Simon Block) shows the somewhat chaotic and anxiety-filled arrival of the children by bus (one boy vomits on Mr. Montefiore as soon as he’s greeted by Montefiore), but then the teenagers who will be the main orphan characters in the story start to come into focus. (The ones who get the most screen time and backstories are the boys.)

Arek Hershlikovicz (played by Tomasz Studzinski) is a lanky, pimple-faced rebel. He shows an early romantic interest in Sala (played by Anna Maciejewska), who becomes his girlfriend. Icek “Ike” Alterman (played by Kuba Sprenger) is a bit of a charming flirt, and he finds out soon upon arriving that he’s attracted to an English girl. Schmuel “Sam” Laskier (played by Marek Wrobelewski) is a sorrowful loner. Ben Helfgott (played by Pascal Fischer) is a superb athlete, who quickly becomes a favorite of Coach Lawrence.

Chaim Olmer (played by Kacper Swietek) had assumed the identity of a boy named Ephraim Minsburg in order to survive, and the alias has stuck, but Chaim now wants to be known by his real name so that his sister can find him. Salek Falinower (played by Jakub Jankiewicz) is another loner, and he’s more likely than Sam to separate himself from the rest of the group. (He has to be gently coaxed by Friedmann to get out of the bus.) Salek is convinced that he will be reunited with his missing brother Chiel someday, even though everyone keeps telling him that there’s almost no chance that Chiel has survived.

Because most of the children have been through the trauma of concentration camps, their healing and rehabilitation are emotionally tough on them. The younger children who lived out on the streets are inseparable. During a walk in the woods, they are terrified by the presence of a small dog being walked by a local woman. The children run off and hide and have to be searched for by a counselor.

Another scene in the movie shows how something as simple as putting bread on the tables in the dining hall can spark a feeding frenzy, as the children grab the bread and run to their rooms to either eat the bread quickly or hide it from others. Eventually, the children learn that food at the orphanage is plentiful and they don’t have to act like paranoid scavengers and hoarders in order to get a meal.

Medical exams are also filled with anxiety and sometimes bad news. Many of the children are malnourished and recovering from physical abuse, such as beatings, whippings and burns. It’s not uncommon for them to have missing or decaying teeth. And the children also have to be de-loused. The clothes they arrived in are also burned, which is symbolic of them leaving their previous lives behind.

It’s while the children are being de-loused outdoors that they have an unpleasant encounter with some of the local residents. A group of boys who are in the same age group watch from afar and try to taunt them. Arek sees that the local boys’ reactions are out of fear and ignorance, so he approaches them, covered in de-lousing powder and extends his hand as if to give a handshake. One of the taunting boys tentatively takes Arek’s hand, but instead of shaking the hand, Arek pulls the terrified boy into the de-lousing shed. The other local boys run off and leave their bicycles behind, which some of the orphans gleefully steal.

Stealing becomes a habit for some of the orphans, and they are lectured not to do it by their elders at the orphanage. Meanwhile, the orphans are taught English and are encouraged by Ms. Paneth to paint their inner thoughts, without instruction rules or judgment on technique. It’s welcome therapy for many of the children, but one disturbing portrait by a child brings the art teacher to tears. And, as the movie shows, the children have constant nightmares and can be heard screaming and sobbing throughout the night.

During a trip to a local ice-cream parlor, the kids experience more anti-Semitism when the same group of boys who previously tried to taunt them show up at near the shop and give a Nazi salute, Friedmann than shames the boys by telling them that these children’s families were slaughtered. The boys sheepishly walk away, but the Jewish orphans see that anti-Semitism is everywhere, even in a country that fought against the Nazis in World War II.

Meanwhile, Coach Lawrence, a Scotsman who oversees the boys’ soccer playing, tries to toughen them up by telling them that people in the “real world” won’t care about them being Jewish refugees and they can’t use it as an excuse to get special treatment. Privately, Lawrence tells Friedmann that it might be time to start placing the kids into foster homes, in order to improve the strained relations between the locals and the refugees. Some of the locals are very open about their resentment that the estate land and taxpayer money are helping fund the refugees at the group home.

The most devastating part of the movie is when the Red Cross arrives to bring news about the orphans’ families. Most of the children had been holding out glimmers of hope that someone in their family would still be alive. But the news is as bad as expected. Arek is so emotionally wounded to find out that his entire family has been murdered the he verbally lashes out at Donna, and it puts an enormous strain on their relationship. There is a bright spot toward the end of the movie, which won’t be revealed in this review, but it’s enough to say that this happy moment is a testament to the power of hope.

The epilogue of the film takes a similar approach to what “Schindler’s List” did at the end: It shows some of the real-life  survivors returning to the place depicted in the movie, along with flashbacks to the actors who portrayed them in the movie. The real-life Windermere children who give comments at the end of the film are Arek Hersh (who changed his last name from Hershlikovicz), Chaim “Harry” Olmer, Ben Helfgott and Schmuel “Sam” Laskier and Icek “Ike” Alterman.

“The Windermere Children” is an emotionally powerful film (although by no means as harrowing and masterfully made as “Schindler’s List”) that tells an important part of the Holocaust refugee story. The film’s cast members give solid performances, but the movie is heavily slanted toward the male perspective of these children’s experiences, while the female perspective isn’t given as much importance. There’s a one-hour documentary called “The Windermere Children: In Their Own Words,” which is worth watching for a more balanced gender representation and for more testimonials from the survivors. The documentary is a great complement to this dramatic film’s version of their story.

PBS had the U.S. TV premiere of “The Windermere Children” on April 5, 2020. BBC Two had movie’s U.K. TV premiere on January 27, 2020.