Tuesday 26 March 2019

Father-and-child reunion: "Winterlong"

Winterlong - shot around Hastings, and bearing a prominent credit for the University of Bedfordshire - lands among us as another of those patchy, scratchy British debuts, mixing quiet strengths with glaring weaknesses. It opens, for one, on a story beat that's both essential for the drama that follows and yet not remotely persuasive as presented, as an apparently loving middle-class mother dumps her teenage son Julian (Harper Jackson) on the doorstep of her ex-husband Francis (Francis Magee), a beardy hermit who exists in an unheated trailer on a scrap of wasteland that doesn't appear to have much in the way of spare room. After the boy discovers he's being stranded and insists on being taken home, within hours of his arrival, he finds every room (including his own) conspicuously stripped of both belongings and furniture, with not even a trace of a forwarding address left behind. It is, then, a film built on contrivance; the questions it raises, as Julian returns to the trailer and slowly readjusts to his new life in the middle of nowhere, are first whether it can rise above it, and then whether we might get anything out of the results.

By far its strongest suit is Magee, a hefty, lived-in unit who makes the idea of a Home Counties Davy Crockett, with a stash of guns under a log in the woods and a twentysomething singer girlfriend on tour in Belgium, seem vastly more plausible than it should. Magee nails Francis's shifting moods: he's capable of a boozy bonhomie, as when attempting to woo Doon Mackichan's flirty divorcee Barbara (of course Barbara) with a sack of potatoes; yet you also feel he could swing for his boy at any moment, which lends events a welcome tension. Increasingly, however, Francis starts to resemble a notable character in search of a sturdier movie. We don't take much away from limp scenes of the sullen Julian attempting to integrate into his new school in a vomit-flecked tracksuit, and at one point the camera simply drifts off to refind the singer (who never quite seems to be singing the songs we hear sung) and her band. There's a narrative ADHD here - a prevailing lack of focus - which leaves the film unsatisfying: it seems to be headed towards a climactic, breathless fuss, as one of dad's shooters is finally discharged - per screenwriters' law - but it even shrugs and meanders on past that. TV graduate David Jackson fosters a certain, low-level atmosphere - sending DoP Ben Cole off to find nice new angles on the off-season holiday park these boys end up at - but set this dads-and-lads affair against last year's mother-daughter narrative Pin Cushion, which inhabited a comparable milieu on a similar budgetary level, and it looks both unformed and very rough around the edges.

Winterlong opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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