Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Review: x + y equals a Good Film

x + y

Cast: Asa Butterfield, Sally Hawkins, Rafe Spall, Eddie Marsan, Jo Yang, Martin McCann
Director: Morgan Matthews
Screenwriter: James Graham
Rated: M        111 minutes

A film with Sally Hawkins, Rafe Spall and Eddie Marsan just has to have a head start on most other films surely. If you are doubtful, run along to see the wonderful ‘x+y’.
Asa Butterfield who starred in the equally wondrous ‘Hugo’ and the ineffably fine ‘Boy With the Striped Pyjamas’ adds to the talented cast as Nathan, a teen prodigy who finds himself as part of the British team competing in the International Mathematical Olympiad.

Nathan is somewhere on the autistic spectrum (will we ever get a film about someone on the autism spectrum who is a bit dull or not particularly ‘special’?) and has issues with intimacy, change and competition. His world cracks further when his dad Matthew is killed in a car crash where Nathan is the passenger. The closeness and trust he had with his father isn’t matched with his mother Julie. The poignancy of Nathan and Julie’s distance is gutting.
Into Nathan’s life comes the potty –mouthed cynical Martin delightfully played by Rafe Spall. We learn he was once a maths prodigy himself and had a go at the IMO too, but now he has multiple sclerosis, a selection of demons and a fondness for the bottle and a fading career to contend with. He coaches Nathan well though and gets him into the competition and the care of the somewhat overbearing coach Richard (a terrific turn by Eddie Marsan). Oh and Richard was Martin’s bête noir back in the day and delights in reminding Martin of what a disappointment he was/is. Nathan goes off to Taiwan for the competition, meets the delightful Zhang Mei (Jo Yang) from the Chinese team and some of Nathan’s self-containment starts to slip.

Asa is compelling as Nathan, hardly having any dialogue for the first half of the film and very small amounts in the second half. The gift of his acting is that he conveys so much without words, behind the stillness and when he does speak every word has meaning and often huge impact. There are many more experienced older actors who could learn from this young man about character and conviction, impact and depth. The scenes with Zhang Mei are lovely counterpoints to Nathan’s imperviousness and the ill-fated romance makes one totally on side of the couple. Similarly poor Julie’s heartache in not being able to engage with Nathan and ‘feel’ his affection is beautifully unbearable (tissues required).

My only criticism is that the film goes one storyline too far with Julie and Martin but while inauthentic it's not unbearable.
This is director Morgan Matthews first feature but he previously made a documentary called Beautiful Young Minds about (did you guess, clever clogs) Olympiad competitors. He does a really good job taking the factual into fiction, adding the ‘meat’ of the back story and Nathan’s growth.  I read that the character of Nathan is loosely based on Daniel Lightwing, one of the documentary’s protagonists.
There are references and allusions to patterns in Nathan’s outlook, the film’s structure and in some ways the script is clear throughout the film in its symmetry. It has a rigour that could have been eased up a bit but overall it’s all realised exceptionally well and convincingly. Add to this the strong visuals, especially the shots in Taiwan and the slightly off kilter perspectives to presumably match Nathan’s world view, make for an almost poetic package. I also loved the wistful (although occasionally humorous) songs credited to Mearl, nice touch.

It’s a joy to watch the cast in this story and it’s a delight to watch a good idea developed into a credible and charming film. I looooved it.
4 out of 5

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