FILM / The high road

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The Independent Culture
IT IS difficult to praise British films without seeming apologetic about their virtues, their likeability and lack of fuss. But Soft Top Hard Shoulder (15) is worth the effort. The film, written by and starring Peter Capaldi, directed by Stefan Schwartz, won the British Feature Audience Award at the recent London Film Festival. Of the 15 British films shown in that fortnight, it gave most satisfaction to its audience. In this delightful domestic variant of that Hollywood staple, the road movie, Gavin Bellini (Capaldi), an unsuccessful Scottish artist struggling in London, must drive north in his clapped-out Triumph Herald in time for his father's surprise birthday party, or forfeit his share of the small sum realised when the family ice-cream business was wound up. On the way he meets Yvonne (Elaine Collins), whose soft but subtly sturdy personality rebukes, and over time transforms, his rancour and rattiness.

Gavin's grandfather arrived in Glasgow convinced it was America, and set up in the ice- cream business undeterred by the area's annual total of two hours' sunshine. Growing up, Gavin was told one of his uncles had 'gone to America', realising only much later that this was a euphemism for prison. Gavin's uncle Salvatore (the splendid Richard Wilson), pressuring Gavin to make the trip north, explains his authority with a phrase borrowed from American gangster movies: 'I'm the capo.' But Gavin is no less haunted by transatlantic dreams. Even his nickname for a cappuccino, an 'Al Pacino', pays homage to Hollywood rather than Italy, and a soft-top, after all, like the one he drives, is fully as logical a choice for the British climate as an ice-cream business. It's an American dream machine with a greatly reduced horsepower.

American road movies are about the unknown, about unlimited space and unlimited self-dramatisation. A British road movie can only be about landscape that is familiar, however magical, and a self-exploration that is correspondingly tentative. Soft Top Hard Shoulder has been shot with an anamorphic lens for a wide- screen image, but it would take more than an anamorphic lens to make Cheddar Gorge look like the Grand Canyon - and why should it try?

Capaldi's screenplay pays American movies the vast homage of a continuous wry repudiation. Gavin Bellini, doing a laborious 40 mph but scorning the slow lane, imagines that the lorry behind him, flashing its lights, is sharing his sense of adventure, and murmurs 'I see you, Big Buddy. Kindred spirit.' The humour is an understatement that plays off a mainstream of brash assertion.

Americans hit the highway and leave civilisation behind; Gavin puts his foot down on the floor and is still in no risk of breaking the speed limit. Americans get mugged; Gavin leaves the wallet with his petrol money on his seat in a transport cafe. Americans freely express their aggression; Gavin takes his rancour out on an animal rights activist shaking a collecting box, on a bank that happens to be closed, and viciously on Yvonne, when she apologises to him about something, for thinking that saying sorry makes everything all right again.

The camera meanwhile invokes thrilling moments from American movies on a reduced scale that makes them almost undetectable. The menacing truck from Duel, whose driver we never saw, is reincarnated as a VW Beetle, its driver likewise invisible, a clapped-out vehicle in its own right that is still able to give Gavin's Triumph - or 'Crazy Horse' as he calls it - a run for its money. When the deadline for the party is getting close and Gavin must race across Glasgow, he skims over a foreshortened hill and Crazy Horse becomes momentarily airborne - as if this were the San Francisco chase sequence from Bullitt reshot for an audience with weak hearts.

Hyperbolic American emotion could only be out of place in this countryside. The closest approach to it occurs when Gavin and Yvonne are coming up to the Scottish border. Full of suppressed excitement, they look for the crucial signpost, and when they see it at last they mildly explode in their enthusiasm, whooping with love for a landscape that has changed only in category.

When this couple, ill-matched but fated for union, are forced to find a room for the night, it turns out that their romantic feelings are as low-key as all the others. They are as little at ease with each other - without even the erotic undercurrent - as the couple handcuffed together in The 39 Steps (perhaps the only really successful British road movie and a film that didn't cast Britain as no more than an anaemic America).

Once the ordeal of overnight proximity to a stranger has been survived by both parties, Gavin and Yvonne begin to relax. At breakfast Gavin finds some rock'n'roll on the radio, and soon both young people are dancing The Slosh, almost as if there were some enjoyment to be got from the use of the body. From muted conflict the film modulates to muted sentiment.

Soft Top Hard Shoulder was produced by Richard Holmes and directed by Stefan Schwartz, collectively known as the Gruber Brothers. They have been developing their own scripts for some time, but were understandably tempted by Capaldi's screenplay, which is full of sparky dialogue and lightly eccentric characters. The British Feature Audience Award has brought in pounds 10,000 towards publicity for the film's theatrical release. It's paradoxical, though, and perhaps unpromising from a box-office standpoint, that an independent British project should be so preoccupied with, and almost parasitic on, the cinematic tradition it has no part of: Hollywood. For full enjoyment of Soft Top Hard Shoulder it may be necessary to like American movies, even to be mildly knowledgeable about them, but not to want to see one just at the moment - a rather tenuous niche in the marketplace.

A national cinema based on patriotism, violence and sentimentality isn't particularly admirable, but perhaps it has the edge on one based on wryness and gentle irony. Still, Soft Top Hard Shoulder gets much mileage out of a British cultural dilemma that won't go away - of being haunted by imported dreams inappropriate to our habit, our temperament or, simply, our climate.

(Photograph omitted)