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Whimsical and wistful, if occasionally a little too self-consciously kooky, British comedy-drama Sometimes Always Never constructs a pleasant portrait of a mildly unhappy family living in the English northwest. As a lanky, semi-retired tailor whose droll style disguises an enduring inner grief, Bill Nighy leads a strong cast that includes Sam Riley (Control), Alice Lowe (Sightseers) and veteran Jenny Agutter (Walkabout, An American Werewolf in London), among others.
Deploying some fun retro effects like rear projection screens and animation, and a jaunty soundtrack from Edwyn Collins and Sean Read, rocker-turned-director Carl Hunter (from ’90s beat combo The Farm) manages to bring cohesion to the amusing but herky-jerky script by Frank Cottrell Boyce (who also wrote Hunter’s last feature, Grow Your Own). Often, the whole shebang plays like a rattle bag of tropes, digressions and stray running gags. Then again, that randomness is perfectly apt given the centrality here of the board game Scrabble, which requires players to make meaning out of letters selected by chance.
Nighy’s Alan is first met staring sadly out to sea, almost blending in, if it weren’t for the umbrella he’s holding, with the life-size cast-iron men created by artist Antony Gormley on Crosby Beach near Liverpool. He’s a dapperly dressed fellow with the elegant posture of a professional clotheshorse. Like many characters in the Michael Winterbottom- or Danny Boyle-directed films written by Cottrell Boyce, who was once a film critic for a Marxist publication, Alan comes from working-class stock. But those who underestimate the smarts of this autodidact do so at their peril.
That’s especially true when it comes to Scrabble, which has been a lifelong passion for Alan. A single widower on awkward terms these days with his son Peter (Riley), a sign painter, Alan mostly plays the game online with strangers. His enthusiasm wasn’t even dimmed by an argument over Scrabble that he believes caused his son Michael to leave home many years ago, never to be seen again. The choice of words and game strategy of one of his online opponents reminds Alan of Michael, and he starts to wonder if this ghost in the smartphone might actually be his lost son.
The chances that’s the case improve after Alan and Peter visit a coroner’s office to look at a corpse that fits Michael’s description. However, the dead man isn’t Michael, giving Alan hope his son might still be alive and playing Scrabble somewhere. Having just viewed the corpse, he comes back to report the happy news to Peter in the waiting room, all smiles and bounce, oblivious to the fact that this may be bad news for Margaret (Agutter) and Arthur (Tim McInnerny), a couple he met the night before who are also looking for their own missing son.
This dark little interlude abruptly changes the stakes, creating a tonal instability the film struggles to stabilize. The coroner scene comes right on the heels of a witty sequence where Alan hustles Arthur out of 200 pounds through a “friendly” game of Scrabble played in the sad, shabby little bar of the bed and breakfast where all four characters coincidentally happen to be staying. Laying down obscure words only a Scrabble player, poet or 13-year-old spelling bee champ would know — “scopone,” “muzhik” or the usefully two-letter, high-scoring and conveniently symbolic “qi” (a Chinese word for life force) — Alan proves himself a formidable opponent.
Aware that he needs to improve his relationship with Peter, the latter’s wife Sue (Lowe) and their own teenage son Jack (Louis Healy) before Jack leaves the nest, Alan comes to live with them without really being invited. Naturally, before long and according to the laws of movie storytelling, the fish-out-of-water is soon accepted and proves a useful member of the micro community, particularly for his withdrawn grandson. In this instance, he helps Jack discover the joys of Scrabble rather than online shooter games, and teaches him to dress smarter in order to help catch the eye of pretty fellow student Rachel (Ella-Grace Gregoire), with a little assist from an old-fashioned label maker, the kind that embosses letters into a strip of self-adhesive plastic. Alan even teaches Jack to appreciate the label maker’s “elegant” font.
Stylistically, the quick-fire montages, inserted bits of animation and densely decorated sets evoke the wacky worlds of Wes Anderson and the recent Paddington franchise, and that will cut both ways as either a good or a bad thing, depending on the viewer. There’s also a dash of Aki Kaurismaki in the deadpan expressions and milky, higher-latitude light of Northern England. But it all blends together pretty well, just as the weird random dribs and drabs of the plot coalesce reasonably neatly at the end. Perhaps too neatly, but then again that also goes with the tidy, graph-paper quality of Scrabble, a wonderful game that deserves more filmic attention than its cold, distant cousin chess.
Production companies: Hurricane Films, Goldfinch Studios
Distributor: Parkland Entertainment
Cast: Bill Nighy, Sam Riley, Alice Lowe, Louis Healy, Jenny Agutter, Tim McInnerny, Ella-Grace Gregoire, Oliver Sindcup, Alexei Sayle
Director: Carl Hunter
Screenwriter: Frank Cottrell Boyce
Producers: Roy Boulter, Alan Latham, Solon Papadopoulos
Executive producers: Bill Nighy, Andrea Gibson, Geoffrey Iles, Kirsty Bell, Jason Moring, Ron Moring, Phil McKenzie, Sarada McDermott, Luke Taylor, Matthew Helderman
Director of photography: Richard Stoddard
Production designer: Tim Dickel
Costume designer: Lance Milligan
Editor: Stephen Haren
Music: Edwyn Collins, Sean Read
Casting director: Michelle Smith
Sales: Double Dutch International
Rating 12A (in the U.K.), 89 minutes
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