It’s strange that as mannered a film as Carl Hunter’s Scrabble-loving debut feature “Sometimes Always Never” should yield one of Bill Nighy’s very least mannered — and best — performances, but then, these are strange times. They were strange back in 2018 when this British production, based on a screenplay by celebrated screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (“24 Hour Party People,” “Millions,” “Goodbye Christopher Robin”) premiered at the London Film Festival. They will no doubt still be strange in July when, after its stateside run in “virtual cinemas,” the film will bow on VOD. And they were certainly strange in the alternate, anachronistic present-day England in which the film is set.
Nighy, fielding a soft but convincing Liverpudlian lilt, plays widowed father, grandfather, bespoke tailor and Scrabble hustler Alan, a character who combines the actor’s easy rakishness, dapper style and stiffly diffident Englishness. Alan has spent many dogged years searching for his son Michael, who stormed out of the house during an argument over the validity of the word zo (a Tibetan yak/cow crossbreed) and never came home.
Alan’s obsession with finding Michael has meant he has long neglected Peter (a gentle, grave Sam Riley), the son who stayed, who is now married to Sue (Alice Lowe) and father to high-school-aged Jack (Louis Healy). So while Alan may have many life lessons to teach, regarding Marmite and snappy dressing and the importance of knowing all the two-letter words officially accepted by the Scrabble dictionary, they are mostly lavished on Jack, while his relationship with Peter remains removed by several hundred emotional li (a measure of distance equaling roughly 500m).
But before we understand even this simple but emotionally resonant situation, Hunter has introduced another element — the film’s insistently quirky visual style — which almost amounts to another, rather intrusive character. Young women in ’60s headbands and sherbet-colored coats chat over the handlebars of their classic mopeds. Hallways are painted in aggressively simpering shades of grandma pink. Anecdotes are illustrated with split screens, cutesy animations and scratchy black-and-white flashbacks. And car journeys are ostentatiously back-projected against landscapes that could be the views from 1970s postcards left to bleach and curl in the sun. Hm (interjection used to express doubt).
Alan and Peter have a reunion of sorts when a body answering Michael’s description is found and they go together to identify it, getting trapped overnight in a little hotel. There they meet Margaret (Jenny Agutter) and Arthur (Tim McInnerney), who, it transpires, are also the parents of a lost son, and are in town to look at the same body. They play Scrabble with Alan who, amusingly, pretends to know nothing of the game only to crack out words like muzjiks (indentured peasants in Russia) thereby gazumping Arthur out of £200. Afterwards (because the body is not Michael’s), back at home, Alan foists himself on Peter’s family in an inarticulate attempt to repair some of the damage their long estrangement has caused, a project further hampered when Alan becomes convinced that an online Scrabble adversary is in fact his long-lost son.
The archly indie art direction — think of a slightly slovenly Wes Anderson or a slightly spruced-up Aki Kaurismaki — is exaggerated by the saturated palette, canted angles and tilt-shifted toytown effects of Richard Stoddard’s photography, and by the quaintly plinky score from Edwyn Collins and Sean Read. And while it’s a bit obvious in its inference that these characters are trapped in the past, it’s not unpleasant, and has some nicely inventive flourishes. It’s just that it doesn’t really belong in the same movie as the nuances and subtle shadings of grief, loss and disruptions in qi (the Chinese word for life force) that the script and the performances so delicately deal in.
Riley, Nighy, Lowe and Agutter all find some truthful, moving place to work from, despite the ever-present threat of being upstaged by a kitschy sconce or an eye-jangling turquoise-and-pink color scheme. And so, though the plot’s pacing could be outmatched by the average ai (a three-toed South American sloth), we remain engaged due to quiet performances made all the more impressive by how they cut through such noisy visual style.
“You think it’s going to be about the words but really it’s about the numbers,” Peter says, making the truest statement anyone’s ever made about the classic word game, and illustrating the other great, if niche, pleasure of Cottrell Boyce’s script: It really gets Scrabble. And there’s real respect for the comfort that logophilia, wordplay and the precise, coolly comprehensible rules of the game might provide, especially for someone like Alan, who is painfully aware of how much outside the board’s calming, colorful grid is beyond his control.
That “Sometimes Always Never” can teem with such unnecessary whimsy and so many underdeveloped side ideas, and yet through the power of strong performances and heartfelt, offbeat, insightful, Scrabble-happy scripting, can still hold together is strange indeed. Or perhaps not so much strange as od (a mystical universal force theorized to be responsible for invisible phenomena such as magnetism).