Director: Virginia Gilbert
Writer: Virginia Gilbert
Cast: James Fox, Natalie Dormer, Brenda Fricker
Adapted from her own short story, Virginia Gilbert’s debut feature is a flimsy, insubstantial romantic comedy, built around a premise that lacks credibility from the outset. Joseph (James Fox) and Brenda (Brenda Fricker) have retired to the French town of Nimes, where they are able to enjoy the sunshine and good food, while carrying on the same banal lifestyle they led at home. Their daily routine includes Radio 4 and The Times crossword, and takes them to the same restaurant every evening, where they meet an attractive young couple, Suzanne (Natalie Dormer) and Mark (Paul Nicholls), who are on a short, romantic break. After striking up a conversation over dinner, Joseph develops an infatuation with Suzanne and starts following her around the tourist trail.
This never results in any confrontation, as Suzanne is surprisingly open to having an elderly stranger impose himself on her holiday; she even encourages him with some suggestive looks and mild flirtations. Her receptivity is partially explained by their shared enthusiasm for the local ruins and Mark’s irritating habit of taking excessively loud business calls, but the idea that there might be some attraction there is never remotely believable. Joseph comes across as sadly delusional, and no real explanation is given as to why that might be, despite some hints at a history of clinical depression.
The dialogue is stilted, mundane, almost ludicrously naturalistic and fails to give any psychological insight into the characters whatsoever. When delivering his lines, James Fox often looks as if he is expecting someone to immediately laugh in his face, and, more often than not, that would probably be an appropriate reaction. It is hard to know whether phrases like, ‘You can come over and use our pool any time’, are deliberately excruciating or just appallingly written, especially because there is nothing in the characters’ interactions that suggests anything untoward, or even surprising, has been said. You have to feel sorry for the actors, particularly Brenda Fricker, who comes across as admirably human in spite of the script. Her character is easily the most sympathetic and, even when she is forced to rev up her Irish accent and loudly exclaim, ‘Ah shite!’, she gives it full gusto and manages to draw a despairing laugh.
The Nimes setting is perpetually bathed in golden sunlight, presumably in an attempt to play up the holiday atmosphere. The visuals are pleasant but quickly become unbearably monotonous, although that is perhaps the intention. When Joseph takes Suzanne and Mark on a trip to his friend’s vineyard, there is a welcome change of scene, but the new setting merely invites new clichés. Mark enthusiastically discusses the business side of things with the owner, while Suzanne links arms with Joseph and indulges in an impromptu disclosure about her not-especially-troubled childhood.
The film is supposed to be a reflection about old age and the impossibility of regaining youth, but these aspects are ignored until the end and only ever dealt with superficially. It is extraordinarily safe and devoid of any conflict; even the dramatic climax peters out into nothing, although unfortunately not before introducing yet another preposterous plot point. It is a bewildering debut from Gilbert, who fails to demonstrate a shred of innovation or a basic understanding of how people interact with one another. Bad films are forgivable, but those which attempt nothing, and cannot even adequately portray that, are not.