Last Night's Viewing: Everyday, Channel 4

 

As a title, Everyday was near perfect for Michael Winterbottom's film about what happens to a family when the man of the house goes to prison. It's a term that hovers ambiguously between the reassuring and the resentful. Put it in front of the word "life" and you've got a promise of uneventful ordinariness – no drama, just the daily stuff we're all familiar with.

But it also has the seeds of a complaint within it; a sense of unvarying routine that just has to be got through, one day after another and no skipping any of them. And for a drama in which time was never simply going to pass but had to be served that was a useful wobble. You got both versions here. Scenes of comfortable domestic mundanity and the slow tick of identical days endured. Repetitions drove the point home. You don't just get up for school on one day, you do it every day. You don't just slump back disconsolate on to your bunk after one family visit, you do it every single time.

The way in which Everyday was made inevitably shaped the sense that you were watching real lives in front of the lens. Rather than cast for slowly aging children, Winterbottom decided to stretch the shoot over five years, working with four children from a real family, using an improvised script and filming in the children's own home and school. Shirley Henderson plays their mother, Karen, struggling to keep the family going while her husband Ian (John Simm) is in prison. His crime isn't specified because that's not what the film is about, but you can work out that it's serious enough for him to serve at least four years and yet not so monstrous that he isn't welcomed back to the local pub when he eventually gets out.

Winterbottom has adapted Thomas Hardy more than once in his film career and there was something of Hardy here, in the study of pinched rural lives for whom a beautiful landscape is not the stuff of a weekend getaway but may just represent a kind of obstacle. The film was interrupted by landscape shots of low horizons that didn't just mark the steady passing of the seasons but also provided a vista for Karen and her family to trudge across, as they travelled to see Ian in prison. This was Hardy without the plot, though, a studiously understated narrative that appeared to flinch away from all the obvious sources of dramatic tension. So we learned only after the event that Karen had had an affair with the friendly chap at the local pub, but the revelation caused only a momentary ripple in the even surface of the thing.

Christmas followed Christmas, experienced only at second hand by Ian. You got the texture of this oddly twisted life: awkward visits in which there's not much to say because father and children are living in different worlds, the hurried sex of a day out on licence, the exhaustion for Karen of being the only adult. There were fine moments of documentary observation ("You understand that drugs outside of prison are stronger than those inside and may lead to overdose," droned a prison guard as he processed Ian for parole) and performances of unforced naturalness from all the children. But there was also an odd sense of missing emotional connections. I think it may have been to the drama's credit.

The encounters between Ian and his family had the authentic awkwardness of people pretending to an easy intimacy that wasn't actually there. But it didn't make it any easier to ride out the repetitions of the film, or to be convinced by the sunny mood of reunion on which the film finished, as the family played together on a Norfolk beach after Ian's release. The lift of the camera boom hinted at happy resolution, but you wondered whether Ian had really learned anything.

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