By Fergus Henderson. Winterlong, the directorial debut of David Jackson, is an understated film, full of quiet looks and silent nods. Francis is a gruff, off-the-grid kind of man with a big beard. He lives in a self-made shack in East Sussex, wears bomber hats and drinks spirits straight. Julian, his estranged son (Harper Jackson), is almost non-verbal to begin with, prone as teenagers are to staring with blank intensity. When Julian’s mother abandons him to Francis at the film’s beginning they are forced to learn how to function as family do (or don’t), and to reckon with themselves, until an accident creates yet more trouble for them.
Jackson, stepping from television to film, finds a natural lead in Francis Magee (Francis). It turns out that the two have known each other for a number of years. Jackson wrote the character with an image of Magee in mind. It shows: from the first moment we see him we are in no doubt as to Magee’s investment in and understanding of his role.
Luckily for his fellow actors Magee is a generous player whose easy charm and well-worn humanity gives them ample room to work their characters around, reflecting light onto everyone around. The total realisation of Francis’ character does, unfortunately, leave the other characters, and the narrative at large, lacking in comparison.
The film is ostensibly Julian’s coming-of-age story, his emotionally withdrawn father accidentally teaching him confidence and self-belief as he adapts to his new living situation. Jackson cannot get around his interest in Magee’s character to the extent that Julian is an underwritten character afforded the vaguest of character arcs. Consequentially both audience and film want to return to Magee whenever the plot allows.
Jackson professes a desire to merge poetic filmmaking with the classic British social realism. There are many moments in the film’s middle section in which such an idea could very well have come to fruition. Francis’ tenuous relationship with singer Carole (Carole Weyers), or Julian’s uneasy new school experience and subsequent romance with classmate Taylor. Moments of romance, defiance, self-realisation.
This is the raw material of life that British film poets like Bill Douglas, Andrea Arnold, and Terrence Davies have mined. If their films, to continue the metaphor, are pages filled with stanzas, Jackson appears too timid to allow more than the briefest haiku of filmic poetry. The moments and ideas are very much there but more insinuated than fully expressed.
Which is a shame, as there is a beating heart on clear display here. The film abounds in gentle humour and displays clever, unpretentious decision making. Likewise every actor inhabits their character without the script needing to spell things out. They are sensitively observed and feel true and believable, using the sparse dialogue to satisfying effect. A bad accident late in the film gives the narrative a well-timed jolt that carries it quickly and dramatically to its conclusion.
As a film it is too slight to enter any great pantheon, and feels more like a television film than a truly cinematic one. What it does offer, and its biggest asset, is its tremendous central performance. Francis Magee is without a doubt a worthy actor all too often underutilised by the projects he has been given. In Winterlong he is at last on full display, and it is a wonderful thing to see.
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