London based actress Mercedes Grower makes her screenwriting and directorial debut with Brakes, a film that couldn’t be any more lo-fi if it tried. Episodic and improvisational in feel, Brakes is a multi-stranded ensemble piece that explores what it is to fall in and out of love in contemporary London. The twist being that her film is split into two distinctive parts; ‘Part Two’ actually arrives first, detailing the moment when characters break up, before ‘Part One’ (in the film’s final reel – with me so far?) rewinds to show us those initial meet-cutes.
Because of its starry and much talented ensemble cast – which includes such diverse figures as The Mighty Boosh‘s Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt, Barratt’s real-life partner Julia Davis, Seb Cardinal of Cardinal Burns fame, Steve Oram and Mercedes Grower herself, alongside Paul McGann, Kate Hardie, Kerry Fox, Peter Wight and Roland Gift of Fine Young Cannibals fame to name but a few – Grower’s film has been attracting a lot of PR-friendly comparisons with Love Actually in that rather hoary vein of ‘It’s like Love Actually…on acid’ (in reality, Love Actually on just such substances would amount to little more than Hugh Grant staring at his open palms for two hours rather than Martine McCutcheon’s pleasingly plump rear end, whilst Alan Rickman would chunner on forever to a dead-eyed Emma Thompson about just why he felt the need to be unfaithful to her with Heike Makatsch because ‘we’re all like…connected, y’know?’) when in actual fact what Brakes actually is is something much more honest, more ragged and punky, as befits its micro-budget aesthetic.
It’s a genuinely novel film but I would be lying if I said it was one hundred percent successful. As with many productions that offer up several stories all at once for audiences to digest, there are issues. From the bizarre comedy that stems from the Julian Barratt and Oliver Maltman strand (the former’s childlike inability to take no for an answer when he arrives announced in London armed with ice cream is rolled back to reveal the initial holiday romance; a topless Barratt at Maltman’s bedside, serenading with small Spanish guitar and an explanation of Capoeira, a peculiarly Barratt obsession that is also significantly showcased in his film Mindhorn) to the perhaps obligatory middle-class storyline of an icy impasse reached by Gift and (a somewhat wasted) Fox, this is a tonally inconsistent piece but perhaps intentionally so. What is perhaps unintentional however is the fact that some of the relationship strands are more palatable than others, whilst some also leave you wanting much more – I would have particularly liked to have seen more from McGann and Hardie for example; not just because I’m a big fan of both and I cannot think of two more beautiful middle-aged people to invest in, but because I genuinely think we were short changed with their storyline despite the credible raw authenticity and accomplished performance they each bring to the proceedings.
As is often the case with such pick ‘n’ mix storytelling, you get the feeling that some examples could have carried a 90 minute film all by themselves, whilst others feel little more than an afterthought. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that it is a story that features the film’s talented writer/director/producer (because of course you’d give yourself a plum role, why would you not?) Noel Fielding and Mercedes Grower’s relationship in particular stands out as one possessing enough mileage to go full term. Fielding shivering in the Soho snow kicking a football around dressed in a vintage leather jacket, desert scarf and teensy tiny 80s footballer shorts (an ensemble that perhaps only Fielding could pull off) whilst a pregnant Grower mopes after him to a public convenience demanding to know where it all went wrong, is a sequence that has a heartfelt, desperate and melancholic honesty which makes our subsequent time travel back to see a boiler suited Fielding cheekily chatting up Grower’s bowling alley assistant all the more poignant. The pair – who had previously played a similarly hipster couple in Finola Geraghty’s little seen, 2010 film Come on Eileen, a low budget drama regarding a middle aged woman’s descent into alcohol addiction – possess a natural, easy chemistry together that sells their story especially well. At the opposite end, it is perhaps the unlikely pairing of Mike Leigh favourite and unsung everyman hero of British cinema Peter Wight and the untameable talent of Julia Davis, that also impresses with an unexpectedly natural screen partnership in their tale of an aging film director and an aspiring, awful actress who meet at an audition.
Brakes isn’t a perfect film by any means; it could be argued that, despite the talent on display, its USP wears a little bit thin once you’ve seen the first two or three break-ups play out, whilst the minimal production values could irritate audiences who expect a film to look like a film and not something shot on the hoof upon the streets of London seemingly on a Nokia cameraphone. But ultimately, despite (or perhaps perversely because of) it being scrappy and shambolic, you’re left with is a sense that you’ve witnessed something that is at least original and manages to afford us with some wry observations and plausible realities performed by a truly eclectic cast. It’s an interesting debut from Grower at a time when it’s more important than ever to hear female voices in the industry.