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Classy performances add much-needed color to the somewhat beige A Long Way From Home, writer-director Virginia Gilbert‘s low-key debut. Based on her own short story, this Anglo-French co-production is a decent showcase for veterans James Fox and Brenda Fricker as long-time-married expats.
The gentle-paced film’s target audience is similarly mature, though the lively presence of fast-rising British starlet Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones) will ensure a degree of interest from elsewhere in the demographic spectrum. World-premiering in competition at Edinburgh, it’s of some interest for festivals catering to older viewers, though will be ideally suited to small-screen exposure.
Set and shot in the beautiful and ancient Roman city of Nimes, not far from France’s Mediterranean coast, A Long Way From Home makes pleasant use of some unfamiliar locations. But it seldom feels particularly “cinematic,” and there’s the sense that Gilbert’s text could just as easily have been adapted for TV or radio.
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Indeed, this kind of restrained, civilized fare is the kind of thing often to be found on BBC’s staid Radio 4, to which seventyish Joseph (Fox) and his Irish wife Brenda (Fricker) remain devoted despite having decamped to foreign climes. He’s languid and somewhat bored; she’s much feistier and more energetic, despite showing early symptoms of mental cloudiness.
Joseph is only shaken from his genteel torpor when he becomes quietly infatuated with twentysomething Suzanne (Dormer), who’s in town for a few days with her boyfriend Mark (Paul Nicholls). The stage is set for a familiar story of long-dormant lust and septuagenarian folly with what we fear will be dire, melodramatic consequences – Amour plus Venus meets Death In Venice, even. This thankfully doesn’t quite materialize, Gilbert instead developing the Joseph/Suzanne relationship in a mature, nuanced manner. But while she deserves credit for skirting histrionics and tragedy, by the end it’s debatable whether the results are elegantly spare or pallidly slender.
It’s an unsurprisingly “literary” kind of film, with the emphasis on the text and the actors and all directorial flourishes kept to a bare minimum. Gilbert, BAFTA-nominated for her 2007 short Hesitation and the daughter of Brian Gilbert (best known for bookish 1990s biopics Wilde and Tom & Viv), relies on cinematographer Ed Rutherford to “open out” her story, most effectively in daytime exterior scenes conducted under a sun that’s more flattening than kissing. It’s the exact opposite of Rutherford’s work on Joanna Hogg‘s superb Archipelago (2010), all stormy skies and shadowy rooms, a film which Gilbert slyly namechecks via a crossword clue.
While on this evidence Hogg is several cuts above Gilbert as a filmmaker, she’s an excellent choice as a model and inspiration. And Gilbert shares with Hogg a knack for unfussy but persuasive ensemble playing, BAFTA-laureate Fox and Oscar-winner Fricker providing a delightful study in chalk-cheese companionship. Nicholls is gamely likeable in the kind of thankless role familiar from Woody Allen‘s similar studies of extra-marital quasi-dalliance, while Dormer, soon to be seen in Ron Howard‘s Rush, again proves herself a vivaciously smart screen presence.
Venue: Edinburgh Film Festival (Michael Powell Award competition)
Production companies: February, Superbe
Cast: James Fox, Natalie Dormer, Brenda Fricker, Paul Nicholls
Director/Screenwriter: Virginia Gilbert, based on her short story
Producers: Guillaume Benski, Junyoung Jang
Director of photography: Ed Rutherford
Production designer: Thomas Laporte
Editor: Thomas Goldser
Sales: February Films, London
No MPAA rating, 81 minutes
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