Writer: Frank Cottrell Boyce
Director: Carl Hunter
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce really likes to write about fathers and sons; last year his movie Goodbye Christopher Robin examined the relationship between the shell-shocked A.A. Milne and his son, woven into the magical landscape that inspired Winnie-the-Pooh. More modestly this year Cottrell Boyce’s new film Sometimes, Always, Never, premiered at the London Film Festival, is about a family of scrabble enthusiasts and the enduring pain of a missing child.
Scrabble-fanatic Alan and his adult son Peter find themselves at a seaside B&B where Alan hustles some fellow guests into playing his favourite word-loving board game. The next day both couples come face-to-face at the local Coroner’s Office, there to identify the body of their missing sons. Convinced Michael is still alive, tailor Alan recognises the online gameplay of a fellow scrabble addict and arranges to meet. But will Alan’s obsession cost him the family already in front of him?
This is the kind of film that is increasingly difficult to get made, two of the producers argued during their introductory talk, because it’s not about superheroes or saving the world. Sometimes, Always, Never by first-time director Carl Hunter is a very domestic story of grief and the complexities of parental relationships. Its restraint and modest pace won’t be for everyone and while Cottrell Boyce’s screenplay doesn’t quite hold together as effectively as it should, these issues of parental failings are interesting and rarely addressed.
Perhaps the biggest problem is the absence of Michael, and while the ongoing effect of his disappearance drives the plot, we learn so little about him that it’s hard to empathise with Alan’s determination and with Peter’s resentment of his prodigal brother. Absent characters need to feel as though they were once present, that the current family dynamic has been created by the void they leave behind, and although Sometimes, Always, Neverbroaches it, the depth of that enduring emotion doesn’t quite ring true.
There is some very good characterisation that gives the actors enough to build on, with Bill Nighy as Alan and Sam Riley, in his second Film Festival appearance, as Peter. Nighy’s Alan is fairly bloody-minded, certain of his brilliance at the word-play game and determined to go his own way. Peter, meanwhile has a sizeable chip on his shoulder resulting from his father’s preference for his missing son, keeping his own family away from Alan. Both Riley and Nighy show their characters slowly thaw and come together, rediscovering some of the relationship they once had.
There is a sweet if insubstantial subplot with Alan’s grandson Jack who is drawn away from his computer, spruced-up and able to attract a cool scrabble-loving girlfriend, while Alice Lowe makes her mark in an underwritten role as Peter’s wife who loves her boys but refuses to give in to their emotional retreat. Tim McInnerny and Jenny Agutter complete the cast as the equally undeveloped hotel couple on a parallel track.
Director Carl Hunter has included some moments of heightened reality that link to some of Cottrell Boyce’s previous work including Dr Whobut although interesting, the use of techniques including stop-motion and occasionally saturated photography never quite feel consistent or purposeful. Several scenes also take in place in front of some rather too obvious green-screen, including all of the driving sequences in which cars are quite obviously not moving, and even an open-air woodland segment that looks very like a studio.
The film’s title refers to the use of buttons on a suit jacket, the first is sometimes employed, the second always and the third never. This is a film that has a lot to say but it only sometimes engaging, always solid but never astounding.
Release Date: No UK Release Date Set | Image: Contributed