Incidental Characters

 

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Ordinary lives treated as material for a tale with which we can identify.

 
Incidental Characters  

Steve Watts

 

This debut feature is at the very least a highly individual endeavour. Benjamin Verrall, who both wrote and directed it, gives us a piece deliberately quiet in character, one that brings to mind the early work of Mike Leigh (1971’s Bleak Moments in particular) while also echoing the films of Jon Sanders in that it features a group of characters each with personal problems of their own. One critic has already reviewed it dismissively as though Incidental Characters was a failed romcom but, despite the humour contained within it, the film struck me as first and foremost a portrait of loners struggling to make their lives better.

 

Four figures are at the centre. Two of them, Alf (Howard Perret) and Alison (Isabella Marshall) are employed in a small book-publishing firm being run in Lewes, East Sussex by Tony (Steve Watts) and the fourth is another local girl, Josie (Sophia Capasso), who, having encountered the shy Alf in a shop, starts to go out with him. We learn early on that Alison is returning as office manager after a year away that has seen her recovering from an ill-advised love affair with a married man that had ended in humiliating circumstances. As for the boss man, Tony, he has two unsuccessful marriages behind him and pays dutiful visits to the care home where his elderly mother (Lucinda Curtis), a victim of dementia, is living out her days. His manner towards Alison seems flirtatious, but she ignores it. Meanwhile, Alf, who works on videos promoting the books, is cautiously shedding his reserve to woo Josie but then discovers that her feelings for him are less deep than his for her.

 

The title of the film is a pointer to the fact that Verrall wants to deal with ordinary lives rather than exceptional ones and I have no argument with that. However, his writing skills are variable and can on occasion descend to the quite dreadful as witness the would-be comic scene of Alf trying out an audio commentary for one of his tapes. Indeed, although the overall characterisation seeks to go beyond it, certain aspects of Alf are uncomfortably close to the oldest of clichés, that of the bumbling unsophisticated youth. Nor does Verrall help himself by inserting at intervals throughout scenes in which all four central figures speak direct to camera and in so doing interrupt the flow of the film. This is at its very worst at the start when they follow on directly from one another before we even know who these people are. As for plot developments, Tony’s tale takes an unexpected turn, but the attempt to round things off by looking ahead to a future that is positive for everyone comes over as an unlikely set of contrivances rather than a fulfilment of the film’s opening quote from e.e. cummings about everybody’s need to fight to be their true selves.

 

In these sometimes uneasy circumstances the cast do well, but whether or not Verrall should continue to pursue a career in film is perhaps questionable. His writing certainly needs honing but Incidental Characters is a work in which he makes words the crucial element and he might do better as a playwright. Despite that feeling, it must be said that he does well by Lewes which he obviously loves. The location footage is excellent and for those who only associate the town with bonfire night this film will open their eyes to its attractions.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Sophia Capasso, Isabella Marshall. Howard Perret, Steve Watts, Lucinda Curtis, Mark Knightley.

 

Dir Benjamin Verrall, Pro Ruth Marshall, Amelia Rowcroft and Benjamin Verrall, Screenplay Benjamin Verrall, Ph Jeremy Reed, Art Dir Amelia Rocroft, Ed Benjamin Verrall, Music Joe Kiely.

 

Toffee Hammer Productions-Toffee Hammer Productions.
107 mins. UK. 2019. Rel: 21 February 2020. Cert. 12A.