A crazy tale from the naked city

Some Voices (15) | Director: Simon Cellan Jones | Starring: Daniel Craig, David Morrisssey, Kelly Macdonald | 101 Mins
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The Big Picture

The Big Picture

In Some Voices the tatty but vibrant streets of Shepherd's Bush represent a crucible of spiritual and mental endurance. The district is a mere postcode away from Notting Hill, but the chances of colliding with a Hollywood actress and a pint of orange juice aren't so great.

But finding yourself opposite a Scotsman wielding a brick - now that's a possibility. Ray (Daniel Craig), just released from a psychiatric hospital, has arrived in the neighbourhood under the care of his older brother, Pete (David Morrissey), and the film makes a running visual pun on the double meaning of asylum: a place of refuge, or an institution for lunatics.

Adapted from the Royal Court play by Joe Penhall, and directed by Simon Cellan Jones, Some Voices exerts its grip by not immediately revealing what sort of film it intends to be. At first, it shapes up primarily as a moody drama of urban estrangement, the camera frequently panning out over night-time London to suggest the loneliness and anonymity of metropolitan life.

But the mood lightens, even as Ray intrudes upon a violent domestic and gets a beating for his trouble: his reward is to be taken in and patched up by Laura (Kelly Macdonald), a fiery Scots lass who's been left pregnant by her ex. Ray's subsequent courting of her is disarmingly straightforward: he follows her into a pub, buys a drink and sits next to her. When she retreats to another table, he trails after her. It's a hair's-breadth away from stalking, but in this case their encounter blooms shyly into romance.

Perhaps even more intriguing, however, is Ray's relationship with Pete, a divorced loner who runs a greasy spoon by day, which he converts into an upmarket bistro by night. Pete is naturally protective of his unstable brother, monitoring his medication and taking him on as kitchen help. This concern reveals a tenderness and confidence in his character, qualities that seem to have impressed his waitress, Mandy (Julie Graham). But on the romantic front, Pete is a tortoise to Ray's hare, and the contrast begins to tug at the seams of their closeness.

While Pete works himself to the bone, Ray whisks Laura off to frolic on the beach at Hastings, a town whose peeling Victorian sadness provides an unlikely tonic to the fugitive pair. (I'm glad that the film-makers chose Hastings rather than Brighton and its over-familiar cosmopolitanism).

The film is preoccupied throughout with the idea of intimacy as a gift, distributed as randomly and unfairly as anything else. Ray, the borderline schizophrenic, has no trouble getting close to someone, and in Laura he may have found an ideal match: "Squeeze the breath out of me," she tells him. "It makes me feel safe."

Pete, apparently the regular guy, can't seem to get to first base, despite Mandy's gentle prompting. "Coq au vin's passé," she advises, as though French will sound romantic no matter what you're saying. This pair of relationships, compared and contrasted, initially provides the film with a lightness of heart, albeit of a sort that doesn't quite allow us to relax. If we didn't already know that Ray had just been released from hospital, then Craig's piercingly blue eyes and tense posture give fair warning of a volatile temperament.

Craig, who worked with Cellan Jones on Our Friends in the North, plays the disturbed Ray with a restraint that somehow augments, rather than diminishes, his intensity. David Morrissey as Pete is even better, an instinctive actor who can use his whole body to convey an inner turbulence (his performances in the BBC dramas Holding On and Our Mutual Friend were some of the best I've seen on television).

Cellan Jones expertly uses both actors to convey the fragility of lives spent shaking off the ghosts. The brothers carry within them the dismal legacy of an alcoholic father and a mother who died too soon; but whereas it has thrust focus and responsibility on to Pete, it has destabilised Ray altogether. Ominous intimations of collapse flicker inside his head like a video recorder on the blink; voices whisper unintelligibly, while the circles he once traced on sand and in wheatfields become, in his damaged psychology, a signal of distress.

As the woman only dimly aware of Ray's illness, Kelly Macdonald is at last given a role that honours her; her ability to switch in an instant from jaw-jutting aggression to cackling delight is incomparable here. She's also one of the few women who could wear a Busby Berkeley bathing cap down at the lido and still look beautiful. The warmth she radiates is so plausible that we instantly know what Ray means when he tries to explain to Pete how "special" she is - "you know, just really thoughtful and nice..."

Those may not be the greatest words Joe Penhall ever scripted, but in the context of the film, they are certainly among the most touching.

Only once does the film's step falter, and unfortunately it's over the narrative climax. Its stage origins suddenly become apparent, and Cellan Jones makes the mistake of dragging it out a couple of minutes longer than necessary. In fairness, it's the only time it seems to wobble, and for a feature début, the level of assurance elsewhere is altogether pretty astounding.

The commitment of a fine cast, the brave use of unglamorous locations, and a sure grasp of storytelling all finally tell in its favour. This is British film-making by people not just equipped with a budget, but with the more elusive advantages of talent and passion.

David Morrissey also has a short film out this week, Bring Me Your Love, his second as director. It's a sly miniature, based on a short story by Charles Bukowski, about a journalist (Ian Hart) who visits his stricken wife (Saira Todd) in a rural sanatorium. His words are solicitous, but his body language exudes a spirit of duty. A bitter duet on love and betrayal, it holds out great promise for Morrissey's full feature début next year.