Saturday, 14 January 2017

Best Laid Plans (2012)

From a script by Chris Green, director David Blair's 2012 film Best Laid Plans throws knowing glances towards John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men in both its title and in its central partnership of small time hustler Danny, played by Stephen Graham, and his gentle giant friend Joseph played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. But to call it a contemporary British remake of that classic would actually be erroneous.

The central conceit is that Danny, mired in debt to local gangster Curtis (David O'Hara), must persuade Joseph, a person with learning difficulties and stupendous strength, to enter the violent world of underground, illegal cage fighting, broadcast to the world via the web, in an effort to dissuade Curtis from exacting his revenge over the unpaid debts.

I must admit as the film commenced, with Stephen Graham breathlessly running down the snow covered Nottingham streets, pursued by a car carrying O'Hara and his goons to the soundtrack of The Enemy's 'We'll Live and Die In These Towns', I was immediately up for this ride.  However, the criminal and cage fighting aspects of Green's screenplay not only provide unwelcome interruptions into the lives of Danny and Joseph, they also ended up providing the same reaction to me too, because Best Laid Plans actually finds something far more interesting in not only the unlikely caring relationship between our two leads, but also in Joseph's hesitant courtship with Maxine Peake's character, Isabel who - like him - also has learning difficulties. Once Peake enters the film, accompanied by her parents who are encouraging in the romance she has with Joseph, I found my interest being piqued far more at the potential for a narrative based solely on this unusual, but working domestic/caring setup that Danny and Joseph exist in, essentially being family for one another. When Isabel's mother points out Danny could apply for carers allowance for all that he does to aid Joseph, I found myself hoping the film would go down this route instead - especially when Danny finds love with Emma Stansfield's sex worker, Lisa, extending the 'family'. It does do this to a certain extent, but this isn't Ken Loach alas, and we're quickly brought back to yet another, deeply formulaic moment of bareknuckle brutality that will keep the bargain bin DVD crowd who enjoy the bloody British gangland genre happy and who the DVD cover and press for the film are clearly (though wrongly) targeting. 

Outside of the This is England films, Stephen Graham has made some disappointing movies, but he is an actor who seems positively incapable of turning in a disappointing performance and he has seemingly found his niche in films and roles that take us from the brutally uncompromising to the heartbreakingly tender, often in the same scene. Maxine Peake is another performer I have the upmost admiration for - in fact she's one of my all time favourite actresses - and, whilst she has yet to find a cinematic vehicle to stand shoulder to shoulder with her achievements on the small screen or stage, praise is most certainly due to her subtly effective and sympathetic performance as Isabel, matched nicely with Akinnuoye-Agbaje performance as Danny, who moves from childlike wonder to extreme violence without ever losing the viewer.

Blair's direction is very good and the film looks brilliant, but there's something missing here that I think lies with the screenplay. Ultimately the distracting criminal aspect, as represented by O'Hara (maybe this is my fault though as he's an actor I must admit to not being keen on; he's a one note performer, and that note is Glaswegian menace, with a voice that is thick and gravelly to the point of incomprehensible) and his slippery associate Lee Ingleby, becomes too much of a chore, sapping the strengths of the character studies that make up the rest of the narrative, though without them I'm not sure how the film would actually work. A further draft and a tighter, more cohesive approach to the film may have made this something a little bit more special than it is, but it more or less manages to remain a watchable and emotionally engaging affair nonetheless.

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