|for the dogs and the parks and the all-too-few moments where the warmth wins you over
|Alison Steadman, Dave Johns, Marsha Millar, Natalie Simpson, Nina Smith, Vivienne Soan
|25th September 2020
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Retired mental health nurse Dave (Dave Johns) walks his German Shepherd Tillie in a north London park every day.
One day, twice divorced Fern (Alison Steadman) decides to walk her terrier, Henry, a little further from home than usual and the pair – well, the four – meet, coming in opposite directions down a footpath. Fern berates Dave for not having Tillie on a lead, before heading off in a huff.
The following day, they encounter each other once more and Fern is none-too-pleased to see him again, muttering under her breath that Tillie should’ve been on a lead last time, as Dave bends down to attach the lead.
But by Walk 3, the atmosphere begins to warm and before long, they find themselves walking in the same direction, exchanging pleasantries.
Over a series of walks – 23, as you could probably guess from the title – first a friendship, then a romance blossoms between the pair.
But like every relationship, secrets, misunderstandings and the other person’s family are among the obstacles to happiness that life can throw in the way.
WHAT’S IT LIKE?
There’s a lot of warmth, charm and gentle humour here, wrapped around a completely unconvincing and contrived narrative – so the extent to which you’d enjoy it would depend on whether you’re driven by your heart or your head – and whether or not you’re a lonely dog-owner, looking for another chance of love, during your twilight years.
It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Paul Morrison, the writer/director best known for Little Ashes, Wondrous Oblivion and the Oscar-nominated Solomon & Gaenor and I can only hope that’s not because he’s spent the past twelve years working on this.
Building the narrative around 23 Walks isn’t a bad idea, but it fails as a basic structure as the first encounters aren’t walks with each other (although they are at least out walking), there’s nothing particularly defining about the 23rd walk and we don’t see all of those in between anyway. Some Walks might be a more accurate title.
To be as picky as that is, perhaps, a sign that the rest doesn’t have enough depth to explore or believability to consider with gusto.
Most significantly, perhaps, is that you never really feel that Dave and Fern are a natural fit and while you can accept that over a series of walks, they might have become friends, it never really feels that romance would be on the cards.
Dave Johns is most convincing as a slightly better humoured version of his eponymous character in Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winning I, Daniel Blake, in the housing benefit office, for example. But he’s about as convincing as a romantic lead as he is as a Spanish teacher.
However, it’s the telling of a perfectly adequate story that fails to convince;
Fern always walks her dog near where she lives, in Finchley, but for no particular reason, happens to try somewhere else for a few days, she makes it quite clear that she doesn’t like secrets or being messed around, yet despite his clear attraction to her, he wilfully jeopardises his dream yet the film expects us to continue rooting for him, they get to Walk 9 without having asked each other’s name because that facilitates a joke on Walk 8, there are moments where the subtext is obvious – such as his first visit to her house – but both characters fail to acknowledge or articulate this.
There are times when the pair seem to behave more like immature or petulant teenagers than retirees with a wealth of experience behind them; uncertainty is the only certainty at the start of all relationships, but within reason. Yes, you don’t want to burden – even frighten – a new paramour with all your baggage, but two older people are similarly unlikely to withhold potential deal-breakers indefinitely – and then be surprised by the reaction when they come out. Dave and Fern are just more likeable than they are believable.
Rather than being a hard watch, it’s quite the opposite; not challenging enough, with too much sign-posting to help you follow what’s already easy enough to understand.
The script is full of expositional short-cuts or arch twists and turns and most of the few other characters are simply objects around which to wind the narrative; Dave’s relationship with his daughter seems to sway from good to bad in alternate scenes – sometimes within scenes – without much analysis.
Even if you are rooting for this relationship to work out, the frustration does not come from obstacles thrown at them but obstacles they create themselves, which makes it too easy to give up on them and think they deserve to be alone.
There are moments of authenticity, such as the awkwardness of the first sleepover of a couple who haven’t had a first sleepover for decades, or the unexpected encounter with your new partner’s ex, but in one case, when a particular problem is resolved, the needle on the Show-Don’t-Tell-O-Meter swings rather violently from too much telling to SHOW, SHOW, SHOW!
It’s a shame, because there aren’t many films aimed at the older audience – but an older audience is capable of understanding nuance and doesn’t need such simplistic, obvious or arch plotting to keep them on board.
With a budget so small that producers turn up as extras, it’s visually successful, with a satisfying use of subtitles and photography that hits the spot, particularly the flora of the north London parks look exquisite enough for a stressed film-maker to use as a calming screen-saver.
At its heart, this is a sweet romance, told passionately but rather clumsily and without the respect – or trust – the target audience deserves or expects.
The result will leave you less like you’ve had a nice walk in the park and more like a short stroll to the pet shop – to find it closed – only to find one more can of dog food at the back of the cupboard when you get home.