Fittingly enough, the word-puzzler gambit of Scrabble plays a recurring role in the quirky, jazzy, and ultimately poignant delight of a film that is Sometimes, Always, Never, a watch-worthy number (released in the U.K. in 2018 but now on Amazon). Incidentally, “quirky” and “jazzy” would be high-scoring words in the game which our wry, wiry protagonist, Alan (Billy Nighy), excels, except that, as we learn there is only one “z” in the Scrabble letter pile. A deeper and more haunting puzzle factor arrives in the face of a certain missing son (or two) in the narrative: he and his non-missing son (Sam Riley, from the Ian Curtis biopic Control) grapple with the varied dynamics of father, son, and son-in-absentia, while another adjacent family shares a similar anguish.
Plot specifics aside, Nighy’s Alan is a slippery devil of a character, played with an apt and wily elusiveness by the tall British actor best known on this side of the drink as the elderly “catch” in The Best Exotic Hotel Marigold franchise. Whereas his Marigold “golden years” romancer character verged on smarminess, this role finds the veteran actor flexing a very different thespian muscle, with little evident emotionality on the sleeve.
Ditto the filmmakers in charge. Director Carl Hunter brings a proper sense of detachment —mixed with sudden emotional depth charges — to Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s chiseled script. It all adds up to a film that is cool to the touch with British propriety and irony, underscored by a central mystery gently burning in the dramatic engine room. (Think Antonioni’s L’Avventura, but with far less existential angst.)
Among the film’s notable appeals is its savvy visual sheen: Cinematographer Richard Stoddard regularly nabs our attention with his crisp, angular lensing and clever ways around a scene. That approach somehow serves as a visual parallel to Nighy’s blend of objective cool and underlying, well-buttoned parental pain (he is, after all, a dapper tailor by trade — the “sometimes, always, never” reference pertaining to proper suit jacket-buttoning protocol).
From the aural angle, the score benefits from the anthemic vintage ear candy of sandpaper-timbred Bonny Tyler’s “It’s a Heartache.” The film is, indeed, a heartache in waiting and in the margins — or wherever the missing, potentially prodigal son is lurking — but with a pleasant hum of dry humor and a resistance to easy resolution or quick fix pay-off. Think jazz, but with a missing “z.”
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