Sometimes Always Never (3 stars)

Sometimes Always Never

Bill Nighy is as excellent as ever in this somewhat self-conscious comedy drama

Between Bill Nighy's fastidious lead and the title's nod to the rules for buttoning up (or not) suit jackets, this gently melancholic comedy drama from debut director Carl Hunter is a mite too fussy for its own good. Though the role of a dryly elegant tailor and doleful logophile could have been written for Nighy, even his ever-excellent performance can't quite galvanise its studied mannerisms.

Accomplished but over-familiar and finnicky, it's a film that downplays the sorrows suggested in veteran writer Frank Cottrell Boyce's script for a Scrabble-themed study in emotional reserve that – all too often – verges on buttoned-up itself. Nighy plays Alan, a widower joining his son Peter (Sam Riley) at the seaside on family business. The reason is the possibility of news about Alan's other son Michael, who disappeared years previously after a fall-out over the word 'zo' in Scrabble. When Alan moves in with Peter, his wife Sue (Alice Lowe), and their son Jack (Louis Healy), bickering gives way to online Scrabble bouts. When Alan's opponent uses the word 'zo', could it be Michael?

Nighy gets fine support across the board here: Riley peddles a fine line in wry exasperation, Lowe's understated excellence rings true and Jenny Agutter banks a piquant cameo. Meanwhile, Hunter's poised compositions brim with playful invention, though both the script and images sometimes seem to strain to draw attention to their quirks.

Between the chapter headings, knowing cameos, bantering trivia and ironic toothbrushes (Cyberman or Dalek?), Hunter's Wes Anderson-esque tics rarely allow the film's feelings to breathe. In a sense, that is his point: to spotlight how our little routines can insulate us from otherwise unbearable emotions. But the film's contentment to coast on its well-groomed surfaces elicits detached appreciation rather than genuine engagement. As for the Scrabble-as-a-life-lesson metaphor, you don't need a dictionary to challenge that low-scoring bid.

Selected release from Fri 14 Jun.

Sometimes Always Never

  • 3 stars
  • 2018
  • UK
  • 1h 31min
  • Directed by: Carl Hunter
  • Cast: Bill Nighy, Jenny Agutter, Alice Lowe

Alan (Nighy) is a fastidious widower who joins his son Peter (Riley) at the seaside on family business. Fine performances, including an ever-excellent one from Nighy, can’t quite breathe life into Hunter’s Wes Anderson-ish mannerisms, in this gently melancholic but too studied comedy drama.