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In which a casting agent displays an alarming talent for predicting the future
on 1 December 2013
A Partially Educated Review
What fascinates me with Starter For 10 is how within the space of a couple of years, pretty much all of it's (at the time) up-and-coming cast were well on their way to breaking out in a huge way. When Alice Eve and Dominic Cooper are your least established actors, you know that you've done something right. Let's be honest, the film's sub-10 million budget would very likely be unable to achieve this cast today unless they felt like being charitable.
Set in 1985, the film follows Brian Jackson, a walking hive of general knowledge. Starting his studies of English Literature at Bristol University, it's not long before Brian enrols on the University Challenge team, led by Patrick Walsh and also featuring the instant object of Brian's desire, Alice Harbinson. Elsewhere, Brian also develops a friendship with Rebecca "different protest every week" Epstein, whilst also coming to terms with his mother's new relationship with local ice-cream man Des, following the death of Brian's father.
After the obligatory character intro montage, we go straight to University with a Vicars and Tarts party in which the attendance is suitably sparse. Note to future British students: if you're expecting the parties to be like American films, stop deluding yourself. It's not the perfect set-up to be honest, every decent representation of University lifestyle is marred by stereotypes. The hippy guy claiming that toilet paper is harmful comes off as someone who you would never actually meet at a University. I'm happy to accept that I was at University 20 years after the time this film is set, but I still don't believe it. Likewise, Epstein's group of protesters stop short of literal bra-burning, but do pretty much everything else that you would expect from every movie protest group in the history of ever.
McAvoy's great though. Adopting the awkward "out of place Brit" template, he manages to avoid becoming Hugh Grant through the simple fact that he's capable of showing more than one emotion. He doesn't seek out the laughs, but lets the story and script produce them while he humanises the character, knowing that the best laughs are pulled from human flaws, rather than farcical ones. Elsewhere, he lets the more emotional side of the character show itself in equally natural ways. When he remembers his late father, he elicits genuine sympathies from you, showing a subtlety in his reflective sadness, rather than despaired histrionics. It isn't going to reduce you to tears, nor should it have tried to, but it will resonate with anyone capable of human emotion.
Scenes like this are helped by a brilliant script that never forgets that it's primary purpose is to amuse. Remaining consistently funny throughout, it's able to blend the more emotional or serious moments in a way that flows, rather than jerks, between styles. Keeping these moments to a minimum also helps in ensuring that they don't become too wearing and means that it strays from the Nicholas Sparks-esque manipulative side that writer David Nicholls demonstrated in his script for One Day.*
Elsewhere in the cast, everyone does their job to at least a decent standard. The stand-out though is Rebecca Hall. While the protest scenes have the clichés, Hall is given plenty of time to flesh out the character away from the scenes. Where the protester is often played for comedy value, Rebecca is there to be liked. It's obvious from the start that she's supposed to be the true object of Brian's desires, but it's not because the script can't help itself from telegraphing it at every point it gets. It's because Hall's performance makes you like her far more than Alice and makes you want her to be happy. Elsewhere, Cumberbatch brings out the pomposity and arrogance of Patrick well, but he's overdoing it ever so slightly and isn't given much of a chance to do anything else.
There's a couple of elephants in the room though and they go by the names of Tate and Corden. Don't be put off by their names in the cast list. I actually don't mind James Corden, but if you really can't stand him, don't worry, he's barely in it. As for Tate, I have to give her props. Loud, irritating and with a voice that's like sticking a screwdriver in your ears, Tate tones down her less likeable qualities and comes out with some of her best work. With only an 11-year age gap, she's blatantly far too young to be playing McAvoy's mother, but embodies all the motherly qualities necessary for that to become unimportant. Thankfully, her laugh only makes one appearance and does so in a scene that's otherwise funny. As for the handling of her new relationship, it's is executed pitch-perfect and that's entirely down to her ability to show her guiltless affection for Des, whilst retaining the love for her late husband.
Special mention must also go to the soundtrack. With Kate Bush, Buzzcocks, The Smiths, The Cure and many others, it's a veritable pantheon of British greats that feels and sounds like a student soundtrack from the 1980s. It doesn't matter that you've heard all of them before. It matters that it suits the film and it does that admirably. Although, Pictures Of You in 1985? I think not.
It's a shame then that box office results were hardly staggering. With a general release date that fell a couple of months before The Last King Of Scotland's, it would have perhaps fared better had it come after the growing interest in McAvoy that Last King provided. That wasn't the case and the box office didn't even break the 2 million mark globally (let alone an embarrassing domestic gross that failed to breach a quarter of a million). Bar my parents, I can't actually name anyone who's seen it either. I admit that British film has produced some dire stuff like Lesbian Vampire Killers, Sex Lives Of The Potato Men and Keith Lemon: The Film (or just him in general), but this ones more in line quality-wise with About A Boy. If you're a cynic, you'll hate it, but that's your problem.
If that's not enough then I go back to my original argument. LOOK AT THAT CAST!
FOUR out of five
Contains: a damn good advert for British film from the director of What Happens In Vegas... actually, ignore that last bit.
*Aimed at the film, not the book which I've never read.