There are sometimes actors that embody a word so perfectly, they might as well be the textbook example of it. But when it comes to Bill Nighy, he straddles two particular words — elegant and odd. Even in his bolder roles (e.g., the aging rocker Billy Mack in “Love Actually”) Nighy never loses his poise, his calculation. And that is certainly the case with his performance in director Carl Hunter’s film, Sometimes Always Never. For he always has one foot in the concept of peculiar, with the other in the area of refined.
Based on novel Triple Word Score by Frank Cottrell Boyce (who also wrote the screenplay), the plot revolves around a familial mystery. Alan (Nighy, “Hope Gap”), a fashionable tailor, is in search of his long lost son, Michael. Decades ago, according to Alan’s youngest son, Peter (Sam Riley, “Free Fire”), Alan and Michael fought over a game of something that was “Scrabble-like” which caused Michael to pick up and leave. But when an online Scrabble player comes onto the scene, Alan begins to believe that the player could indeed be Michael — setting him off on a course to discover the mysteries of Michael’s whereabouts, while simultaneously repairing his awkward relationship with Peter.
Right from the get go, Carl Hunter establishes the off-kilter dynamics between the two leads. Alan, though stylish and gentlemanly, is far from a polished nor perfect father. He’s made mistakes and never gave his kids the full respect they deserved, in a multitude of ways. Peter holds onto these disappoints and grudges much like an elephant who never forgets. And with the use of quirky imagery, editing choices, and an equally whimsical score by Edwyn Collins and Sean Read, these all work together to show the unresolved relationship of this unique cinematic duo. For Alan and Peter both lost their way decades ago, never finding the solution to rebuild the typical father son bond they should always had.
Yet even with such wonderful elements sprinkled throughout, Sometimes Always Never does takes a while to find its groove. Hunter spends quite a bit of time establishing the cumbersome behavior of Alan, making the first act seem like a slug to get through. This is especially frustrating during the first of many Scrabble games within the story, since we’ve already accepted that Alan is a living, breathing dictionary. These repetitive moments could be part of Boyce adapting his own work, but rather it feels like just an excuse to show off the quirky elements of Alan as a character. Which after the third or fourth explanation of a word gets tiresome, to say the least.
Thankfully, as the film heads towards the second act, Hunter gets a hold of the narrative much better. Part of this is aided by the visual spectacle of the entire piece. For example, every set is interesting, yet incredibly chaotic. Peter’s son, Jack (Louis Healy, “Emmerdale” TV series) has a bedroom filled with all of the toys and gadgets that any kid could ask for. This particular space symbolizes an act of redemption, in which Peter gets to give Jack a kind of childhood he never had with his odd father. But when we get to witness Alan’s home and store, everything is perfectly presented, color coded, matching, no element is out of place. These are the kind of details that often get lost in the shuffle of the filmmaking process, but art director Guto Humphreys, production designer Tim Dickel, and set decorator David Morison, are clearly masters at their craft as visual storytellers.
And though some might find these artistic choices (including Hunter’s Wes Anderson take on things) to be somewhat obvious and silly at times, it works at allowing audiences into the world of Peter’s deep resentment towards Alan. And when paired with both Bill Nighy and Sam Riley’s perfectly calculated performances, those feelings come across in an even more authentic fashion. For Riley, he presents Peter in an almost cartoonish portrayal of an angst filled son, which works wonderfully during the film’s more darkly funny moments. But when he’s allowed, Riley showcases a soft yet vulnerable nature, one that is never overpowering but absolutely relatable.
The same can be said for Nighy, who as always, is in top form here. He knows exactly the right moments to show off his unique chops within the role of Alan. From the quietly funny exchanges, to the heart tugging simple expressions on his face, this is the kind of character that Nighy plays with ease. But rather than that being a negative, Alan is the sort of protagonist that comes alive even more with Nighy’s special touches — especially in the more personal scenes he shares on screen with Riley and Healy. There’s an equally ridged, but soft aesthetic, that the legendary actor never lets go of, making us believe that this isn’t just any Bill Nighy performance, but perhaps one of the new gems within his lengthy filmography.
But at the heart of Sometimes Always Never is a story that is painfully relatable, even if you aren’t at all a Scrabble player. For many people — of various demographics — have gone through the same emotional road that Alan and Peter endure throughout the course of the film. Because (though it goes without saying) parent and child relationships are always complicated. Some might have a smoother time than others, but especially when a giant loss occurs within a family, things can never truly be the same. But it is the path that Alan and Peter go on to resolve this decade long dilemma that may give hope to those looking to make similar amends.
Overall, Sometimes Always Never is an odd little movie. One that, though it takes a while to get in the mood for, has a delightfully comforting pay off. Perhaps it doesn’t have the multi-layered narrative one would like in their mysteries or dramas. But it does have something just as magical — a charming story that will give you the most effortless of comforts from beginning to end. For much like many of the film’s cast of characters begin to discover, sometimes the simplest pleasures in life need to be cherished above all else.