Sometimes Always Never

SOMETIMES ALWAYS NEVER. Bill Nighy, Sam Riley, Alice Lowe, Jenny Agutter. Directed by Carl Hunter. 95 minutes. Rated PG (Mild themes and sexual references).

An odd but intelligent and beguiling film, ‘Sometimes Always Never’ is the big screen adaptation of Scrabble that you never knew you wanted. While studios have long competed for the rights to games like Monopoly, Cluedo and Battleship with very mixed results, Scrabble proves to be the little board game that could. The classic game of anagrams and chance is the glue that holds the familial connections at the heart of this touching tale together, and the quirky collage that results is one to be treasured.  

Alan (Bill Nighy) is a Scrabble nut. His broad vocabulary, strategic expertise and memorised list of all acceptable two-letter words make him a tough opponent. While stopping for the night at a local B&B while on a road trip with his son Peter (Sam Riley), Alan hustles another guest into a game, swindling him of £200. It’s in the course of their flutter that, after Peter takes himself to bed in a huff, Alan illuminates their reasons for travelling. He and Peter are travelling to view an unidentified body which fits the description of his missing son, Michael, who walked out one night after a Scrabble-based disagreement, never to be seen again.

While another film might have pursued the missing person mystery more doggedly, Frank Cottrell Boyce’s screenplay is far more intrigued by the relationships of those that Michael left behind. Of course, there are Alan and Peter, but there’s also Peter’s wife Sue (Alice Lowe, sweetly funny) and his son Jack (Louis Healy), who see more of Alan when he invites himself to stay with them indefinitely. Sue is worried about Peter while Jack is more concerned about a cute classmate, though Alan is keen to help with both of their respective problems. Michael is not totally disregarded though; when playing online Scrabble, Alan becomes convinced that one of his opponents has a style matching his missing son’s and is determined to track down this anonymous player.

As Alan, Bill Nighy shows once again why he could tilt for the title of cinema’s most reliably charming performer. In his hands, Alan is easy-going and gently amusing but deeply sensitive. The wounds left my Michael’s departure sit lightly on his surface, often blinding him to the feelings of others but injecting his every interaction with a touching poignancy. Cottrell Boyce’s clever, droll patter often has characters almost talking past one another in a style that reflects the easy yet emotionally perceptive charms of a Wes Anderson or Noah Baumbach script, and Nighy delivers it with a masterful lightness. As Alan puts it at one point, “Part of the fun is the magic of lovely words”.

Indeed, Cottrell Boyce’s script is generally excellent, its shaggy exterior belying its tight, intelligent plotting and wit. It sneaks through moments of beautiful yet tragic insight, using the narrative’s core of a father and two sons to shed unexpected and bittersweet light on the classic “Prodigal Son” parable. Opposite Nighy in the role of the son that stayed behind, Sam Riley delivers a career-best turn as the worn-out but loving Peter. Riley’s Peter walks the fine line between disaffection with and pity for his father, which lends the unexpectedly clever denouement an emotional power that will probably see many viewers jump on the phone to their fathers or sons after the credits.

The below-the-line work is all terrific too, lending director Carl Hunter’s direction a shaggy, handcrafted charm to match the domestic stakes of the narrative. Tim Dickel’s design has a homemade, stylised feel to it, filled with bold colour and animated vehicular interludes. Hunter and his cinematographer Richard Stoddard use lovely flat compositions to heighten the stylisation of Dickel’s work, complemented by editor Stephen Herren’s occasional use of stop-motion style cutting. The score, provided by Sean Read and Chay Heney, sounds a little like a low-key, lounge-appropriate Trent Reznor score, adding a sorrowful drive to Alan’s search for Michael, and a pair of songs provided by Scottish rocker Edwyn Collins are melancholic and beautiful.

Funny and moving in equal measure, ‘Sometimes Always Never’ is an uncut gem of a film. Its raw surface contains its own unique and odd charms, but it boasts a brilliant, glowing core too. Thanks especially to Nighy, Riley and Cottrell Boyce in his corner, director Carl Hunter has crafted what might be the best boardgame film ever made.

Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Out March 14.

Transmission Films.

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