Genre: Drama, Romance
Directed by: Virginia Gilbert
Starring: James Fox, Natalie Dormer, Paul Nicholls, Brenda Fricker
As the recent storm so visibly demonstrated, without strong foundations there’s a strong danger of being blown away. A flimsy start poses a very real risk of just that, until James Fox’s powerful performance takes root, elevating what could have been nothing more than TV drama fare into an engaging and darkly contemplative character piece.
Joseph (James Fox) and Brenda (Brenda Fricker) are living out the idyllic retirement. Having packed up work, and with three children now grown up, the married couple of fifty years have upped and moved to the summer tourist haven of Nimes in the south of France, rich with history and the good life. There they live out relaxing, if uninspiring days, following the same routine. They do the daily crossword, keep up with correspondence, walk around the town and eat at the same restaurant every night.
Brenda evidently delights in this, but the mundanity wears on Joseph. The vision of the rest of his life, a quiet yet steady decline, haunts him. He looks longingly at signs of vitality. This seems set to continue until they meet a young holidaying couple, Suzanne (Natalie Dormer) and Mark (Paul Nicholls), in their favourite restaurant. Latching on with increasing desperation, Joseph strikes up an emotional attachment with Suzanne over the course of their stay.
Set in such a picturesque, historic site, the most is made of this attractive backdrop. Shot with a light, breezy air by cinematographer Ed Rutherford, we are treated to sun dappled vineyards, striking tree lined avenues and an aged yet bright city. It is very much the retirement home many dream of. You half expect to stumble into an episode of Channel 4’s A Place in the Sun. But a bleaker undercurrent washes through, slowly tainting the tourist guide setting.
The growing fondness between Joseph and Suzanne, and the escalating obsession that threatens to rip apart his settled life, is an often cringe-worthy affair, unbearable to watch yet tinged with a tender understanding. There is a connection between them, just not the one you fear he wants. Emotionally, physically and in its permanency, theirs is but a fleeting liaison, a vision of a past that has long since gone for Joseph. It pours out of him as he holds her gaze too long, watches from covert positions, and turns up along her itinerary to try and contrive a chance to meet.
Everything hangs on James Fox to hold a sometimes slender plot together. It’s a task he achieves magnificently, his face an aching picture of confusion and sorrow. At times it’s painful to watch his tragic pursuit, his minor web of lies ostensibly constructed to fool his wife, although there’s a strong suspicion he’s trying to fool himself just as much, eliciting a mixture of pity and embarrassment. But there’s an embracing warmth hidden away, visible around the edges of his every action. It is this that turns what could have been a seedy and unpleasant role into the uncomfortable, compassionate heart of the film.
Fox, ably supported by a strong cast, Fricker in particular shines, raises Virginia Gilbert’s debut feature from the realms of midweek television drama. Stilted conversations and an unnecessary overemphasis on the tics of daily life abound for the elderly couple abroad, especially in the first act. They do the crossword, listen to the BBC, struggle with the language (in the case of Brenda), keep up with friends through outmoded forms of communication and even get in an obligatory trip to the doctor.
This insistence on establishing the content and tedium of their routine produces an overly slow opening that drags down the first act. A stuttering start threatens to topple over, but just as it does for Joseph, the arrival of Suzanne lights a candle that flickers away softly for the remainder, growing in intensity alongside his obsession. Just when it seems the plot will meander by without notice, you suddenly realise that you’ve been drawn gradually in until its taken hold.
It’s this that redeems what otherwise threatens to be a lightweight experience. A life empty of excitement, empty of hope, and empty of any real future is no real life at all. Joseph appreciates this, and tries to come to terms and make the most of it, just as Brenda has. It may be slight, but watching him do so turns into a sombre delight.