SOMETIMES ALWAYS NEVER
Director: Carl Hunter
Screenwriter: Frank Cottrell Boyce, based on his short story Triple Word Score.
Runtime: 91 mins.
Australian release date: 14 March 2019
Previewed at: Palace Central, Sydney, on 15 January 2019.
Based on Triple Word Score, a short story by the scriptwriter, Frank Cottrell Boyce (well regarded for his screenplay for Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People and many others), Sometimes Always Never is directed by Carl Hunter, who’s better known in some circles as the bassist for Liverpool band The Farm. He’s making his feature film debut here but has been collaborating with Cottrell Boyce on short films for some years. Bill Nighy plays Alan Mellor, a stylish tailor (Nighy’s perfect for the part), in this slow-paced but engaging comedy-drama in which he sets out to find his eldest son, Michael, who went missing after storming out of home years earlier over a game of Scrabble.
Alan is ‘as sharp as his suits’ and his particular sense of style carries over to his approach to Scrabble, which borders on obsessive. He convinces his estranged son Peter (Sam Riley), who’s happily married to Sue (Alice Lowe), to accompany him to identify a body which may or may not be the missing son/brother. The pair have a broken relationship, having virtually stopped speaking after Michael’s disappearance, and the dialogue between them is fractious and accusatory. You can feel Peter’s frustration in trying to connect with a man who seems to be divorced from his surroundings. Alan, on the other hand, is oblivious to this and lives in a world of his own; he wears his grief like he would a well-cut overcoat. When father and son check into a hotel for the night, Alan winds up playing an impromptu game of Scrabble (what else) with Arthur and Margaret (Tim McInnerny and Jenny Agutter), a couple who are, as it turns out, also heading for a viewing of the corpse. Alan is convinced the body can’t be Michael’s, however, because he’s been playing Scrabble online with a mysterious character whose moves he thinks he recognises.
The film’s title refers to the ‘proper’ way to button up a suit jacket, moving down from the top button: this one can be done up sometimes, to the middle button, which must always be fastened, and on to the bottom one, which must never be used. This rigid protocol exemplifies the precise way Alan’s mind works and his desire to close the chapter on his missing son is integral to the plot. Scrabble sets up the structure - it’s a metaphor for the emotional essence of the film, but the script is really about the inability of words to convey meaning in certain situations and how the art of communication doesn’t depend on just how articulate one is. Carl Hunter willingly acknowledges his admiration of, in particular, Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki, but also quirky US director Wes Anderson, and their obvious influence is on show here. Static camera work, slow dollies and pans and still images, along with back projection during the car journeys, slow down the action and exacerbate the tension in the silences. Throw in some short animation and you’ve got a highly stylised movie, and the sets and locations add to the idiosyncratic atmosphere. Richard Stoddard’s cinematography captures the austerely beautiful Lancashire ‘sprout prairies’ and Merseyside’s windswept coastline appropriately, creating just the right mood for the film’s subject matter. It’s hard to tell what time period we’re in, as though time has stopped, which, for Alan, it kind of has.
Sometimes Always Never may be a small film but it punches above its weight by showing that, paradoxically, in the midst of loss important things can be found. It’s not all doom and gloom, either, and there are many droll, lighter moments that bring comic relief to this heart-warming and heart-wrenching family drama. For example, there’s a charming plot-point involving the coyly burgeoning romance between Alan’s grandson Jack (Louis Healy) and a girl at the local bus stop. It’s the many minor, seemingly unimportant scenes like this that make Sometimes Always Never more than the sum of its parts.