Producers: Ray Boulter, Alan Latham and Sol Papadopoulos Director: Carl Hunter Screenplay: Frank Cottrell Boyce Cast: Bill Nighy, Sam Riley, Jenny Agutter, Tim McInnerny, Alice Lowe, Louis Healy, Ella Grace-Gregoire, John Westley, Alan Williams, Eithne Browne and Alexi Sayle Distributor: Blue Fox Entertainment
A little eccentricity goes a long way, and there’s so much of it in Carl Hunter’s debut feature that the picture threatens to curdle with whimsy, especially since Frank Cottrell Boyce’s dialogue carries more than a hint of affectation. Fortunately Bill Nighy’s droll, deadpan delivery makes the quirkiness go down more easily than it otherwise would.
Nighy plays Alan, a widower and half-retired tailor with a nonchalant manner, a passion for precision, and a tendency to pour out esoteric information at the drop of a hat (as well as a proclivity to label everything, including the shelves of books in his home). He’s first shown standing ramrod-straight on the beach near Liverpool, waiting to join up with his son Peter (Sam Riley) for a ride to a nearby town, where they’re scheduled to look at a body that just might be that of Alan’s other son Michael. The prodigal son, as Peter ruefully calls him with a Biblical allusion that reveals his own bitterness, stormed out of the house years before and hasn’t been seen since.
The two, bickering pretty constantly along the way, reach their destination late and have to stay overnight. At the little hotel they strike up a conversation with a couple at another table in the lobby, Margaret (Jenny Agutter) and Arthur (Tim McInnerny), and Alan suggests a game of Scrabble. It’s a hustle: Alan’s a whiz at the game—his stream of pedantic observations derives from his long-time studying for the game—and he takes poor Arthur for two hundred pounds as Margaret and Peter look on.
His decision to keep the money is all the more problematic because it turns out that Margaret and Arthur are there to view the body as well; their son is missing, too. The body, it turns out, is not that of either young man.
After Alan and Peter return home, the older man suddenly shows up at his son’s door and essentially invites himself for a visit. Peter’s wife Sue, a genial sort, is accommodating, but Peter, never on good terms with his oddball dad, is not. Alan does, however, bond with Peter’s son Jack (Louis Healy), a withdrawn teen smitten with Rachel (Ella Grace-Gregoire), a beautiful girl at the bus stop, and helps him connect with her by improving his appearance, particularly with some sharp clothes. (The picture’s title derives from his instructions about properly dealing with the buttons on a three-button suit jacket.)
From here the movie goes off in a couple of directions. One involves a brief affair Alan has with Margaret, much to Peter’s chagrin. But the other gets to the heart of the family dysfunction: Alan becomes convinced that an online Scrabble player is Michael, and determines to track the anonymous Thesaurus down. Naturally Peter will have to track down Alan in turn, and that morphs into a fairly witty, poignant reconciliation between them, with the rest of the family joining in and an empty chair left for the missing member.
In terms of the action, it’s Nighy’s typically quizzical, hesitant performance that dominates the film, though everyone else contributes sharp bits; the standouts include McInnerny’s befuddled Arthur, who nonetheless can turn testy when provoked; Lowe’s smiling, sometimes overly gregarious Sue; and a hilarious cameo by Alexi Sayle as a cantankerous old yachtsman.
Apart from Nighy, though, the most memorable thing about the film is its high degree of stylization. The overall vision is obviously that of director Hunter, but Tim Dickel’s production design is a carefully calibrated juxtaposition of colors and shapes, and David Morison’s sets add to the quasi-fairy-tale feel of the interiors. Occasional goofy animated sequences enhance the sense of the fantastical, as do Richard Stoddard’s widescreen cinematography, which toys playfully with composition (as in scenes of characters riding in cars, which are not only deliberately old-fashioned from a technical standpoint, but oddly framed as well) and the cheeky score by Edwyn Collins and Sean Read. Stephen Haren’s editing is an important component in tying together the disparate elements of comedy, drama and the esoteric.
“Sometimes Always Never” is a film that can, not unjustly, be described as mannered, but thanks especially to Nighy, it doesn’t become insufferably precious.