Starter for 10
, 14 Jan 2007
1985. Working class Brian Jackson (McAvoy) leaves home to attend Bristol University. There he joins the University Challenge team and falls for teammate Alice (Eve). To begin with Brian and Alice hit it off but after a disastrous visit to see Alice at her parents house he returns to Bristol to drown his sorrows with Rebecca (Hall). Brian and Rebecca share a drunken New Year kiss but he makes a big mistake and she runs away.
Will Brians romantic life sort itself out? Who will he end up with? Can he and his team win University Challenge?
Genre cinema has a bad name. Studios pump out endless genre movies, lazy variations on themes laid down years ago because thats what they think Joe and Josephine Public want to watch. As a critic I spend plenty of time bemoaning these films, asking why something more original cant get the greenlight. However just once in a while a film comes along that uses the rules of a given genre (in this case romantic comedy) well, that manages to be both populist fare and quality cinema. Starter For 10 is the first rom-com to do so in some time.
James McAvoy has a tough job as Brian. He must be clever yet klutzy, awkward but able to convince in a love triangle, funny while able to play emotion. All this and more he does with aplomb. Boyishly handsome at 27 hes still convincing as an 18 year old. He nails down the slapstick comedy but also gives Brian the requisite intelligence for the more literate jokes to work. Most importantly hes easy to identify with, in him Brian feels like a real person, even though hes presented rather broadly.
The daughters of two English stage families complete the love triangle. Blonde, buxom Alice Eve as Alice and Brunette Rebecca Hall as Rebecca.
It may be Alice that Brian falls for but right from the off its Rebecca who is the most interesting. Her first appearance charms immediately, shes got some fine jokes right off the bat and Halls comic timing is well tuned. Its welcome to see a female character in what is a light film be intelligent and political and Hall balances these facets well with the comedy. Blessed with girl [you wish lived] next-door prettiness and a smile that lights up the screen she seems a movie star in the making.
Eve is very good also but Alice isnt quite as well drawn. Its easy to see where the character is going right from the start. However Eve is an engaging presence and she too gets plenty of comic moments to shine.
The cast is filled out with cameoing British actors. Charles Dance and Lindsay Duncan pop up briefly in a very funny scene as Eves parents. TV comedy star Catherine Tate is restrained and sweet as Brians mum. However Benedict Cumberbatch almost nicks the film from under everyones noses with a very funny, very broad, performance as Patrick, the leader of Brians University Challenge team.
The 1985 setting is perhaps superfluous, it really could be anytime, but it does provide a stunningly good soundtrack, with The Cure and Kate Bush just two of the great selections.
It isnt perfect. If youve ever seen a film before youll know which girl Brian ends up with by now (though Ive tried not to spoil it) and theres really only one moment you wont see coming. That said when its done with this much charm, when the characters are engaging, and the jokes funny, thats an easy thing to forgive a genre movie.
Go seek it out, switch your brain off for a while and enjoy the simple pleasures of this entertaining bit of fluff.
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