Having made his name (and doubtless a fair old chunk of cash) as one of the producers of 1997's globe-conquering The Full Monty, Uberto Pasolini has gone on to compile an unusually shrugging, modest filmography as a writer-director; he is, at the very least, a refreshing change from all those multi-hyphenates whose every movie rolls in on a Hokusai-scaled wave of hype. Until I stumbled across an old review of mine a few weeks back, I'd almost completely forgotten about the existence of Pasolini's 2013 film Still Life, a drolly human bureaucratic comedy starring an especially downtrodden Eddie Marsan that I apparently rather enjoyed at the time. Eight years on, Pasolini has finally steeled himself to fashion a follow-up, albeit one that actually calls itself Nowhere Special, which assiduously dehandsomes sometime Bond prospect James Norton, and which - rather than offering a flashy or grabby opening - instead contents to lay out the daily routine of a single father and his preschooler son in an anonymous small town somewhere in Northern Ireland. Nits are combed from hair. Bedtime stories are read. The nursery run begins anew. This routine, we learn, is nearing its end, although the dramatic reason for that sneaks up on us, signalled first by an insert of a heaving bathroom cabinet. The father - John (Norton), a windowcleaner by trade - is dying, and attempting to make preparations for his death. His to-do list reads a) find someone who might adopt his boy, and b) break the news that, like the lad's long-departed mother, he's about to disappear from the surface of the Earth. These grave tasks are made only more burdensome yet by the fact John isn't the most naturally garrulous of individuals. (How might anyone find the words?) They also prove more than enough to keep a film occupied over the course of ninety-odd minutes.
Nevertheless, from the off, Nowhere Special remains a film of small, spry observations: the boy (Daniel Lamont) taking a felt tip to his forearm in an effort to reproduce his father's tattoos, dad and lad eating 99s in perfect synch. The delicacy of these gestures comes to be matched by the delicacy of the filmmaking. At one point, John spots a toy dumptruck in the shop window he's squeegeeing; we then cut to the same lorry in the hands of the boy, transformed into an almost-holy relic, something to remember his old man by. Working with the editors Masahiro Hirakubo and Saska Simpson, Pasolini has a knack for eliding any fuss, anything that might be superfluous (dad buying the truck, dad handing the truck over) and leaving the emotion intact. This particular leavetaking will prove a tentative, stop-start process: both an encounter with a dead beetle in a park and the letting-go of a solitary red balloon are initially framed as missed opportunities for The Talk that John needs to have with his offspring. (Not your average precocious movie moppet, Lamont comes over as a little dozy and hazy, which is to the film's advantage: even when The Talk is had, we have no idea if its core concept - that daddy is going away somewhere, for good - will stick.) Yet even as we feel the film leading up to something - a horrendous, wrenching reality that cannot be avoided - we rest easy, sensing this departure will be as well-managed as everything else Pasolini puts up on screen. The film's level of care is on an exact par with that the protagonist takes; we're in safe, experienced hands throughout.
Not least those of Norton, who's very quickly developed a James McAvoy-like skill for landing on rewarding yet non-obvious projects, the scripts more nakedly ambitious performers would likely bin in the pursuit of bigger paydays. (Nowhere Special follows the actor's supporting appearance in Greta Gerwig's Little Women, and his leading turn in Agnieszka Holland's Mr. Jones, released just before the pandemic.) He meets this role's many precise technical challenges: the Ulster accent, playing working-class, playing ill and working-class. (One of the film's background sadnesses: that there clearly hasn't been anybody around for a while to lavish the same care on John as he does on his boy.) Any residual thespian ego might well have been sated by the knowledge the pressures of this plot fall squarely on his shoulders. He gets the lion's share of the close-ups, just pipping his junior co-star, though Pasolini makes a point of mixing them up. The wicked smile that plays on John's lips as he takes revenge on one of his gobbier clients - a welcome, Loachian moment of levity - is soon replaced by a pained expression as he spots new parents who have a very different life (indeed, a life) ahead of them. This is a man who knows his few moments of triumph in this world are coming to an abrupt end - but who's also acutely aware he needs at least one or two more wins before the game is finally up. He hasn't the luxury of resignation, and Norton accords this figure a very great dignity by playing him as such.
Pasolini's triumph lies in taking what would be an inherently complicated situation in real life, and keeping his focus on it simple enough for that situation to translate into affecting cinema. To this end, he effectively deploys Norton's face as an emotional geiger counter, watching John gauge the potential second homes he passes through, and the potential second parents he meets there, and seeing if anything clicks. (The radioactivity, in this instance, is love, its own form of chemistry.) The pay-off is that we immediately spot when a breakthrough is made - when John comes across prospective guardians who might be just right for his lad; the downside is that we also feel his frustration and disappointment whenever the situation sours, or isn't quite right to begin with. The tragedy is that no-one will love this boy as his father does; the consolation the film offers is that there are a few people around who will, all the same, approach that genetically built-in affection. It's a race-against-the-clock search that you could equally imagine underpinning a mid-Thirties Cary Grant vehicle, a neo-realist fable (à la De Sica or the Dardennes) or a tarted-up, doubtless terrible latter-day melodrama with some Hollywood megastar pushing the producers for the big deathbed scene that would finally land him that elusive awards nod. Resisting that awfulness, Pasolini stays true to the time-honoured virtues of calm, understated writing, playing and storytelling; he's an admirably old-fashioned, 20th-century filmmaker in many ways, which may be why he can show us John and son praying for better things without lapsing into cheap shots or winking irony. We still need these old-school storytellers, as we need films that present as nothing special - even as their every choice is quietly, unfussily nuzzling into and breaking your heart.
Nowhere Special is now available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.