‘Golden Years’: Film Review

Courtesy of Moli Films
A bank heist yarn that shortchanges its audience.
4/29/2016

A gang of wrinkly old rebels turn to crime in this timely British ensemble comedy.

A low-budget British comedy about financially troubled senior citizens driven to robbing banks, Golden Years has a great premise along the lines of Breaking Bad meets The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Tapping timely concerns about company pension funds collapsing in the current economic climate, director John Miller’s late-life ensemble caper is firmly pitched at the older moviegoing demographic, a growing and often overlooked market sector. It accordingly features a solid ensemble cast of wrinkly screen veterans, mostly in their 60s and 70s, including alumni of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series, Sherlock and Downton Abbey.

However, the absence of Bill Nighy or Helen Mirren, who are normally legally mandated to appear in any British comedy about mischievous retirees, is an ominous sign. And so it proves with this flat-footed farce, which never delivers on its full comic potential. The inexperience of Miller, with only one previous feature credit to his name, and co-writer Nick Knowles, famous in Britain as a TV handyman and quiz-show host, are likely factors in this missed opportunity. That said, the film’s theme of defiant seniors standing up against an arrogant younger generation has potentially universal appeal across national and cultural borders. Having premiered at the Beijing Film Festival last week, Golden Years opens in U.K. theaters later this week and will be on sale at the Cannes market next month.

Leading the cast are 71-year-old Bernard Hill (Titanic, The Lord of the Rings) and 84-year-old Virginia McKenna (Born Free). They play Arthur and Martha, a retired couple living modestly in suburban Bristol, southwest England. Their sedate social life centers on their local drinking club, where their circle of friends includes flamboyant amateur actor Royston (Simon Callow), his wife Shirley (Una Stubbs), small businessman Brian (Phil Davis) and flighty divorcee Thelma (Ellen Thomas). All are in their autumn years, with shared anxieties over money and health issues.

Upon learning his retirement pension has taken a sharp dip because his former employer has gone bust, Arthur hatches a desperate plot to rob a bank single-handedly. He wisely pulls out at the last minute, but ends up stealing the money anyway due to a crazy slapstick accident that would look implausible even in a Coen brothers movie. Emboldened by this freak success, Arthur recruits Martha into his criminal schemes. Faced with mounting medical bills, depleted pensions and the prospect of their social club being sold, Arthur and his elderly friends then embark on a heist spree in a string of picture-postcard country towns, pursued by an ageing detective (Alun Armstrong) and his overambitious younger rival Stringer (Brad Moore).

Despite a few dark and poignant moments, Golden Years mostly aspires to the warm, whimsical tone of those classic Ealing Studios comedies about plucky outsiders fighting back against the system. Alas, the script is too creaky, the pacing too sluggish and the jokes too leaden to build up any real comic momentum. The generational conflict theme is also overplayed, with almost everyone under 60 depicted as patronizing, greedy and callous. Stringer is a particularly clumsy caricature, a pompous young clown with a permanent orange tan. Think Ricky Gervais meets Donald Trump.

While clearly limited in budget, Golden Years does feature an appealing semi-name cast and some picturesque shots of the English countryside, with judicious use of aerial drone footage and slow motion. Hill gives a solid central performance, though his roots in gritty social realism feel oddly ill-suited to Miller’s labored double entendres and Neil Athale’s cloyingly sentimental piano score. Crucially, the whole enterprise fails as a heart-warming celebration of vitality in old age because the script feels even more weary and worn-out than its creaky-jointed, silver-haired protagonists.

Production company: Moli Films
Cast: Bernard Hill, Virgina McKenna, Simon Callow, Una Stubbs, Phil Davis, Brad Moore, Ellen Thomas, Alun Armstrong, Sue Johnston
Director: John Miller
Screenwriters: John Miller, Nick Knowles, Jeremy Sheldon
Producer: Mark Foligno
Cinematographer: Adam Lincoln
Editor: Dan Lincoln
Music: Neil Athale
Sales: Content Media Corporation

Rating 12A (U.K.), 96 minutes

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