An ultimately beautiful and affecting film, if a bit lacking in places; ultimately, it reduced me to an emotional wreck in quite an impressive way.
I was prepared for this movie to be a downer. It’s about a man dying of cancer, played by one of my new favorite actors (Benedict Cumberbatch!), so I was prepared to be upset by it. And although the script is only intermittently poignant and seems a bit stretched to fill the already-brief runtime, the final impact of this film was absolutely devastating. And that’s not easy to do, either. Having a heavy subject matter isn’t a guarantee of a strong emotional impact; it’s all about the execution, and despite some lackluster scenes, the movie ultimately comes together to be poetically tragic and affecting. And I don’t say that lightly: I can only recommend this movie if you think you’ll be able to take having your heart run over by a steamroller.
In short, this film is about James, a man dying of cancer, who goes on a journey with his three closest friends to his favorite place on Earth, Barafundle Bay. James loves fedoras and is very sympathetic, which spells doom for your heartstrings. Fortunately, however, the film isn’t a “tear-jerker” or melodramatic in any sense. It’s actually very understated– perhaps occasionally too much so– and all of the tragedy of the film is frightfully realistic and genuine.
I’m writing this review several days after having watched this movie, and it’s still affecting me. It pops into my head at various times and I’m surprised by how upset I still am over it. I torture myself listening to the incredibly sad song that played over the end credits. Bizarrely, the film has actually been described by the director as (in part) a comedy, and I suppose that might be true for part of the film. There are a few witty moments where the characters forget, for a moment, that they’re toting around a dying friend. But as one might imagine, the sadness of this film overtakes everything. There’s never any question about the fate of James; he’s doomed from the start, and the rest of the film plays out with that in mind. It’s hard for any real comedy, or even any light-heartedness at all, to take flight from under the heavy veil of that foreknowledge. Unfortunately the comedic aspects of this film seem to have been intended to be genuinely uplifting, instead of the pathetic attempts at levity in the face of a crushing oncoming tragedy, which is how they seemed to me. (There is some slight positivity in this film, admittedly, but for me it came from the spiritual discussions of the afterlife and other philosophical elements of the film rather than any of the humor.)
I don’t often talk about performances, which is mostly because if I think an actor is doing a good job it usually manifests as me being impressed with the solidity of the character being portrayed. When I do actually notice an actor’s performance it’s usually because something about that performance has taken me out of the immersion of the film, which I consider a bad thing. However, it would be a shame to do this review without mentioning how incredible Benedict Cumberbatch was here. Playing a cancer patient has all kind of possible pitfalls, but I can’t name anything that I found lacking in what he did. He was nuanced, complex, relatable, and ultimately moving. Some of his simple, contemplative close-ups were the best moments of the film, because he’s an actor who can write worlds of emotion on his face while still suggesting that we’re only seeing a small part of it.
However, I have problems with a few elements of the story. First of all, there seems to be a consensus that one of the film’s primary themes is friendship. Which, I have to say, is not what I got out of the movie, mostly because I thought that James’ friends were not very good ones. Miles is the most interesting, starting off (ironically) as a bit of a douche and gradually growing to accept James’s situation and truly be honest and helpful to him. The other friends, however, while peppy and supportive, seem surprisingly immature and don’t have much personality altogether. Part of the problem may be that we simply don’t have much time to get to know the characters before they embark on their journey to the Bay; we get a few minutes of introduction in the opening scene, although it’s filtered through James’ own narrative, and it gives very little information about the friends themselves. What I think might have helped overall is if several scenes in the existing film had been cut (there are quite a few moments in the journey that feel like unsatisfying filler) and replaced with some background, taking place before the trip, of James and his friends in their lives before the final journey.
Further, I simply didn’t feel that the emotional connection between these friends was that significant. There’s a beautiful line in the film: Remember that you were loved by me, and you made my life a happy one, and there is no tragedy in that. It’s a painfully gorgeous line out of context, but I can’t say that “love” is what these friends seemed to share. It’s hard to determine what exactly is the connective force that binds these friends together and how close they actually are to one another. I kept wanting there to be someone in the group who was feeling James’ oncoming loss more keenly– there’s a sense of denial among all the friends about James’ illness, which is understandable psychologically, but feels, as a viewer, like an obstacle to accessing and processing the film’s emotional implications. For some reason I felt like I was more affected by James’ death than his friends were, which was disconcerting.
However, despite all these elements that I found lacking, the film still managed to total me. Perhaps I should be thankful that it wasn’t a better film overall, because then it would probably have been even more emotionally affecting, and I doubt if I would actually have survived that. There are also some truly poetic moments in the film– James’ dread of his approaching death is captured in cryptic dream sequences, and some of the conversations and imagery form a spiritual, celestial kind of framework to the story. The final act is nearly perfect, resulting in a completely devastating but beautiful final scene. And beauty might be the film’s ultimate saving grace. Without the poeticism that this film has woven throughout its narrative it would be quite bleak, but a little ember of wonder manages to survive the emotional downpour of the film’s final movements.
And now, here’s the fittingly tragic end-credits song.