As if young couples don’t have enough pressures on their relationship these days, British filmmakers seem intent on reminding them that it will all end in tears, anyway.
“45 Years”, about an elderly couple whose relationship hits an unexpected snag, is currently winning plaudits, with Charlotte Rampling in getting Oscar buzz. Shortly before, another British film dealt with a similar subject, though widening the family net to include a son. “Radiator” is only now receiving a theatrical release in the UK, a year after its 2014 debut at the London Film Festival followed by a handful of festival awards including Special Jury Prize at the Sarasota Film Festival. But better late than never, for this is a lovely, painfully poignant little film, executive-produced by Rachel Weisz.
It starts with a telling voicemail, as a woman’s voice meekly reports that “Leonard has got rather stuck on the sofa, and won’t move for anything”, adding after a long pause, “It’s Maria.”
This message is not only accurate – the irascible and mean-spirited octogenarian Leonard (Richard Johnson) is so committed to the sofa of his dilapidated house that he’s literally lying in his own waste – but it speaks volumes about the relationship between Richard’s wife Maria (Gemma Jones) and the recipient of the call, their son Daniel (Daniel Cerqueira). It’s a certain kind of downtrodden woman who feels she needs to identify herself to her son, after her message.
Leonard and Maria live in the Lake District, whose enviable beauty no one would guess from the way that Daniel trudges towards his childhood home, as though walking towards his own execution. But this is the family before us, which has been ruined by the tyrant on the couch, now an invalid but still with enough malign will to make everyone else’s life a misery.
Tom Browne’s first film as a director, co-written with Cerqueira, is a low-budget three-hander which examines the bonds that keep people together, even when they’ve never been happy: a woman’s constant love for a man who may never have deserved it; a son’s commitment to his mother, despite the painful memories of his childhood; the dependency of a crotchety old git, who’s always been the centre of his own universe.
There’s a bitter truth to it, for sure. And Browne and his actors present it with acute observation and mordant humor. With Daniel taking some time off work to help with his father’s infirmity, most of the action takes place in the house – massive, probably quite splendid once, but now fallen into disrepair, overcome by mice and decades of accumulated junk.
The able-bodied characters navigate the place like an assault course – plugging holes, trying not to trip up, in constant motion as they attend to Leonard’s many demands. A quite brilliant scene between son and father involves the old man’s insistence on particular cutlery for his pigeon supper; a terribly sad one sees Daniel observe his mother’s nocturnal chores through a gaping hole in his bedroom floor; in another, Maria wipe years of dust off her suitcase, as her son’s presence allows her a temporary reprieve.
The performances are top notch. Johnson, who has since passed away, is incredibly self-effacing as he submits himself to his character’s physical indignities; and he allows just enough long-lost humanity to lurk behind Leonard’s nearly-dead eyes to keep us intrigued rather than just appalled. Balancing pluck and vulnerability, Jones nicely suggests the woman who could have been, could still be, if only she’d free herself.
The key, though, is Cerqueira. At first Daniel seems a bit of a drip, speaking in a whine and wearing a perpetual grimace. But the script and the performance reveal in tiny increments both Daniel’s pain and his genuine quality – and potential for joy. The innate decency of mother and son, and their shared tragedy, is extremely touching.