A Triumph of Tiles over Substance
I wouldn't consider myself a particularly keen Scrabble player, nor an expert on the game, but there was a point a few years ago when the unruly searchlight in my brain locked onto the game of bag and tiles and I found myself playing hundreds of games over the internet (not quite Scrabble itself, but a copyright-baiting near-clone). I recall one red wine-fuelled face-to-face session which eventually disintegrated into what I can only describe as Scrabugeddon (always agree in advance on what, if any, the time limits on play are going to be, and also how the seating arrangements will be decided), and also Boxing Day 2007, when Mama and I spent about seven hours solid playing in front of a Two Ronnies marathon (at one point I got three bingos on the trot and was nearly disinherited). So, obviously, the lack of genuine Scrabble-based cinema has occasionally been a source of just a tiny amount of angst for me.
And now just such a film has come along, in the form of Carl Hunter's Sometimes Always Never. I get the impression that the film had the working title Triple Word Score, but I suspect they couldn't justify the licensing expense, hence a title which is catchy but almost meaningless in this context (apparently it is an old dictum concerning the disposition of a well-dressed chap's buttons).
In the film we are introduced to Alan (Bill Nighy), who we quickly learn is a slippery and devious fellow, albeit in the most benign and affable-seeming way. As the film opens Alan is meeting up with his son Peter (Sam Riley), as they depart on a rather grave family mission, and the atmosphere is not helped by the obvious tensions between the two men. Peter clearly thinks that Alan's generally dry and idiosyncratic demeanour has not made him a good father, especially considering that he was a single parent following the death of Peter's mother.
Their trip turns out to involve a night away, which is a surprise to Peter but not Alan, and their stay in a B&B takes an unexpected turn when Alan starts hustling the other guests at Scrabble for eye-watering sums (old favourites like Muzjiks, Griot and Esrom all make an appearance on the table). (Jenny Agutter and Tim McInnerny play Alan's victims in this very funny sequence.)
However, the father-and-son road trip proves fruitless, and Alan and Peter are left to contemplate their relationship, and the others within their family: Peter has a wife (Alice Lowe) and son (Louis Healy), all of whom have impressive Scrabble skills of their own. The irony, of course, proves to be that for all the massive vocabularies the family possess, their actual ability to communicate meaningfully is almost non-existent. Perhaps it was this that drove away Alan's other son, Michael. But now Alan has found himself playing online Scrabble against someone with an eerily familiar approach to the game. Could it possibly be Michael, trying to get in touch?
The writer of Sometimes Always Never is Frank Cottrell Boyce, who has an eclectic and rather variable CV, if we're honest: he started his career on the long-defunct soap opera Brookside, went on to various big-screen collaborations with respected directors like Danny Boyle and Michael Winterbottom, wrote a few novels, and won last Christmas's celebrity University Challenge match between Keble College Oxford and Reading almost single-handed, Reading scoring no points whatsoever. Personally, I find that for every Goodbye Christopher Robin on the list, there is also a Butterfly Kiss; this film is probably in the upper regions of the pile, for it is amusing and engaging and only occasionally irritatingly mannered and affected.
That said, you are never in any doubt of the fact that you are watching a quirky British film which has clearly been made on a punitively tiny budget. There are various scenes of characters driving back and forth across the north of England, which are mostly realised using obvious back projection, while one plot development which was obviously beyond the reach of the financing is depicted using stop-frame animation. The director works hard to make this look like part of the film's general quietly off-beat style, but I doubt anybody will be fooled.
I find myself wondering how much of the film's general tone and identity is the result of an actual creative decision and how much is something necessitated by the lack of money. The setting is mostly suburban, with various scenes in pubs, cafes, kitchens and bedrooms; people sit in cars and caravans as they talk. But there is a lot of talk and not a great deal of the characters actually doing much, unless you include them playing Scrabble with each other. The film has a low-key, deadpan quality which is quite endearing but not especially cinematic - this is one of those films you could watch on the TV without really missing anything. There is nothing especially cinematic about it.
That said, it is still quite watchable, mainly as a result of Nighy's contribution. To begin with I wasn't sure about the rather Ringo-esque Scouse drawl he adopts for the role, but it works for the character and I did get used to it. And it is a very funny performance as a man whose apparently laid-back inscrutability masks an implacably ruthless knack for getting whatever he wants. You can tell that deep down Alan is a decent man whose heart is in the right place – but you're also entirely sympathetic to Peter, who clearly considers him a nightmare to be around.
The problem with the film, if problem it is, is that even the various excavations of the two men's difficult shared past are so low-key and off-hand that they don't feel as though they're carrying much dramatic weight. The film is much more obviously successful when it is trying to be funny than in its more serious moments, which only adds to the sense that this is ultimately something rather lightweight. You can certainly see why Bill Nighy would choose to get involved in this project (he exec produces as well as stars); the film is built around him and it is a brilliant showcase for his talent. And, as noted, the film is often very funny and never less than pleasant to watch. It's a nice film. The problem is it never feels like it's more than that, nor even as if it's really trying to be.