23 Walks (M)
Our world has gotten a lot smaller since the COVID shutdown/quarantine era began.
It's hard to imagine a Mission: Impossible-style film playing convincingly at the moment. It's hard to take a plot seriously that takes you across international borders, or where large groups of people exchange, well, anything.
Instead, what we have are films like 23 Walks. Small, intimate films that stick within the confines of a single idea or a single neighbourhood and feel relevant to our now.
This is a small, independent British film that explores familiar subjects and stories that could be our own.
When Dave (Dave Johns) is out walking his German Shepherd Tilly (Sheila), he runs into Fern (Alison Steadman). She chides him for allowing his big dog to roam freely, not that her terrier Henry (Dennis) cares.
On their second meeting, Fern hardly demurs, but by their third accidental encounter, she warms to the affable man, and apologises for her initial frostiness.
Slowly, over a few more structured encounters in the charming parklands of suburban London, a friendship blooms between the two mid-60s dog lovers.
Fern is slow to warm to people, and across the chats she shares the wounds from her recent divorce, and the distance her children have put between themselves and her.
Dave is a sharer and an amateur philosopher. His grandchildren join them for a few walks, but when he eventually lets his guard down and shares the realities his life with Fern, it does not go down well.
As the film begins, I had my reservations, beginning with the number 23. Twenty-three dog walks feels like they are going take forever to get through, particularly as the first few scenes take place in the same location.
Eventually, we move to different parks, different scenes, and then inside Dave and Fern's homes.
Some of the charms in this sweet little film are the hints of stunning British countryside in the background, or cinematographer David Katznelson's micro focus on a blossom, a bee, a sunbeam.
Director Paul Morrison has made some quirky films, including the recent Little Ashes with Robert Pattinson as Salvador Dali, and the Oscar-nominated Solomon & Gaenor.
His screenplay isn't ambitious. The film's revelations are expected and telegraphed from miles away. But his ear for dialogue, as delivered by the two fine leads, still make this an engaging outing.
Through the couple, he talks about grief, need, family, longing, and companionship.
To some, the dialogue may sound tinny, the fractured conversation slow to come to a point, but to a dog owning film-goer, it has an air of familiar believability.
I have two Dobermans I walk along the same route every morning, though not always at the same time. Across the seven years I've had them, there are a few dozen people I have come to know quite well, even if in single-sentence conversations that have taken years to build up a sense of the other person.
I have come to genuinely care for all of these people, even if in many cases I only know them by their dog's names. Ellie's dad. Ziggy's mum. Fritz's parents.
W.C. Fields said never to work with children or animals, but for the most part the canine stars Sheila and Dennis don't give the filmmakers too much trouble. Admittedly, they mostly run around in the background sniffing things while the human performers emote.
German Shepherd Sheila runs the gamut of performance, playing belligerently against type in an early scene as Dave is telling her to calm down but it is obvious she is struggling to pay attention. She more than makes up for this later in the film as Tilly's health declines, and I was moved to tears by a particularly fine piece of canine acting. Well done Sheila.
As we get to know Dave and Fleur, we similarly come to understand their characters, and thanks to genuine and subtle performances from Johns and Steadman, we care.
We see the giving side of Dave, helping his daughter raise her two children, still close to his gay son. We see Fleur slowly piecing her life together after a separation, and planning for her daughter's wedding overseas, practising her Spanish phrasing on Dave.
The love story that grows is believable and frankly refreshing. So nice to see a genuine age-appropriate love story for people in their post-50s. Not some May-December romance, in creepy Trumpian tradition, and not between shirtless teenagers showing themselves off on TikTok.
Audiences who give this slow-moving film the chance to amble at its own pace will be rewarded for their efforts.