Bill Nighy is one of those actors who tends to polarise his audience. Some viewers can’t get enough of him, others find him mannered and irritating. After watching Nighy go through his paces on many occasions I can only conclude that the mannerisms are down to the man, not the role. His self-conscious blend of aloofness, suavity and charm is a ‘one size fits all’ proposition. One could never imagine him radically altering his appearance and delivery like say, Christian Bale. If you liked Nighy in one movie, you’ll probably like him in every movie – or vice versa.
Which is not to say that every movie in which he’s featured is a masterpiece. On the contrary, even though it now has a peculiar cult following, I’m of the opinion that Love Actually(2003) should be screened with a health warning, informing viewers that watching this film might cause them to grind their teeth down to stumps.
Sometimes, Always, Never– the title refers to how buttons shoud be fastened on a suit – is pretty much the Bill Nighy show from start to finish. It’s gentle, odd and wryly amusing in a manner that Aki Kaurismäki has all-but-perfected. The artificiality of the sets and the static camera style is vaguely reminiscent of Wes Anderson.
This is the debut feature for director, Carl Hunter, who is no tyro straight from film school, but an old hand in the film and music industries. That experience shows in the unforced simplicity of so many scenes. When the actors are shown in a car a very unconvincing back projection is used, just like the good ole days of Hollywood.
Nighy plays a widowed tailor named Alan, whose smooth unflappability drives his adult son, Peter (Sam Riley) to distraction. Another son, Michael, is the great absent presence in this relationship. Some years ago, Michael and his father had an argument over a word on the Scrabble board, which ended with the younger man storming out of the house, never to be seen again.
The film begins with Alan and Peter driving to a coastal town to inspect the body of a drowned man, in case it might be Michael. Upon checking into a B & B, Alan strikes up a conversation with the two other guests, Margaret and Arthur (Jenny Agutter and Tim McInnerny). The aim is to lure Arthur into a game of Scrabble, with a wager on the side. Not only is Alan a walking dictionary, he is also something of a con man.
Back home, Alan unilaterally decides to move in with Peter and his family for an extended stay. Joe’s wife, Sue (Alice Lowe) takes it in her stride, but it’s disturbing to the point of trauma for Peter; and uncomfortable for his teenage son, Joe (Louis Healy), who has to share a room with grandpa and soon finds himself evicted from his own computer. The upside is that Alan takes charge of Joe’s personal appearance and sets him up in a smart suit with which he aims to impress the nice girl at the bus stop.
Sometimes, Always, Neveris a film of set pieces and small surprises that never quite manages to become ‘heart-warming’ or ‘charming’. We are not allowed to enter sympathetically into the life of a family in which relations between characters are consistently stilted. Neither do we make much headway in figuring out Alan’s thoughts and plans. Yet it’s this very distance – this consummate English reserve – that holds one’s attention. While we’re waiting for something big to happen, small things are happening all the time. There’s a point when the mystery seems to be solved, but then we’re not so sure.
The script, written by the experienced Frank Cottrell Boyce, has a mythic dimension. The father searching for the son feels like the story of the Odysseyin reverse. This low-key quest dominates the film, with Alan studying the Scrabble board as if it were a ouija board, searching for clues as to Michael’s disappearance.
You will leave this film with an expanded view of Scrabble and a head full of pop cultural trivia. Among other attractions there’s a score by Edwin Collins and a cameo by Alexei Sayle. Some viewers will go along just for a glance at the mature Jenny Agutter, who made her famous screen debut as a schoolgirl lost in the Australian desert in Nic Roeg’s Walkabout(1971). I won’t say Agutter hasn’t changed a bit, but she still has real screen magnetism.
If this all sounds too fragmentary for comfort I can only report that it actually seems to work. Sometimes, Always, Never is the antithesis of a blockbuster: it’s a shamelessly minor film that won’t take the box office by storm but may one day attain cult status. It’s a much better candidate than Love Actually.
Sometimes, Always, Never
Directed by Carl Hunter
Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Starring Bill Nighy, Sam Riley, Alice Lowe, Jenny Agutter, Tim McInnerny, Louis Healy, Ella-Grace Gregoire, Alexei Sayle
UK, rated PG, 91 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 16 March, 2019