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Sometimes Always Never is a triple-word-score of a film

SOMETIMES ALWAYS NEVER
directed by Carl Hunter

In a delightful film about a father whose life has come unstuck after a contentious Scrabble game, Bill Nighy is superb.

Anyone who has ever sat down to a calm evening game of Scrabble will know it can quickly descend into a war: the board a battlefield, the tiles shrapnel, a trusty dictionary hurled like an axe. Then comes the task of picking up the pieces.

This is the deep background to Sometimes Always Never, a deadpan and ever-so-slightly-deranged English drama written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce. Decades before, Alan (Bill Nighy) played the word “zo” against the protests of his young son, Michael, who promptly trashed the Scrabble board and walked out the door, never to be seen again.

Ever since, Alan has been marooned by loss. He owns a tailoring shop, but his snappy sartorial veneer seems to be held together by fraying seams. He’s become a man of quiet desperation, handing out “Have you seen this boy?” flyers with an outdated photo. He labels his surviving son Peter (Sam Riley) – who paints ice-cream vans for a living – a “poor substitute”. Ouch.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

This film would be easy to dismiss as “quirky” or “offbeat”. The setting feels stranded in the mid-sixties, lending an even greater air of strangeness and curiosity: lots of beige and turquoise, stucco, antique cars and antique manners. When a cellphone and a computer show up, they look like alien gadgets.

The problem with “quirky” and “offbeat” is that they tend to make the weighty seem trivial, the important inconsequential. This has always plagued the films of Wes Anderson, whose style first-time director Carl Hunter liberally borrows from: meticulous framing, languorous gaps in the dialogue and non-sequiturs.

But unlike Anderson, Hunter has a firm grip on the emotional undertow of his story. He knows when to drop the crafted facade and let his characters speak their minds, however falteringly. Even the twee use of Scrabble as a device begins to make sense: Alan can effortlessly wield the word “muzjik” (an indentured Russian peasant, by the way) in a match, yet he still can’t spell out the hole in his heart.

Nighy, needless to say, is superb. Adopting the drooping vowels of a Merseyside accent, he has the perfect blend of insouciance and sensitivity, wit and warmth. He’s supported by terrific actors, especially Riley as his exasperated but sweet-natured son and Jenny Agutter in a deliciously awkward cameo.

Sometimes Always Never turns out be a triple-word-score of a film, a sweet and affectionate delight.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★1/2

Video: Transmission Films

This article was first published in the June 22, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.