The first film from Sam Mendes’ Neal Street Productions, and boasting Tom Hanks as producer, Starter For Ten embodies all the qualities we’ve come to associate with Mendes. It’s laden with intelligence, sensitivity, a keen understanding of human relationships and a sharp sense of humour, even if, on the surface at least, it’s a much lighter slice of cinema than American Beauty or Road To Perdition.
An adaptation of screenwriter David Nicholls’ popular 2004 novel and the feature debut of Cold Feet director Tom Vaughan, this is a very British movie. It centres around 18 year-old Brian’s (James McAvoy) determination to make it onto University Challenge. But while superficially key in terms of plot, Bristol University’s progress in the contest is effectively context for the more universal elements of the tale — Brian’s grief for his dead father, the confusion of falling in love for the first time, and the broader agonies of growing up and leaving home, as friendships evolve, values change and mistakes are inevitably made.
Nicholls’ screenplay addresses these themes deftly, by turns deeply touching and hugely funny: at times toe-curlingly so, as Brian cringes his way through the usual teenage traumas. Largely set in just two locations — the confines of Brian’s student digs and the bleakly cheerful, windswept seafront of his Essex hometown (a neat visual metaphor for Brian’s world-worn yet resilient mum, played by Catherine Tate) — Starter For Ten has a wonderfully intimate feel, compounded by its evocative 1985 setting. Boasting a soundtrack almost exclusively care of The Cure (purists will cringe at the anachronistic use of 1989’s Pictures Of You), there is a clear sense that this is a very specific moment — both literally in its ‘80s nostalgia and in a broader sense, that rarefied time of late adolescence when new experiences have almost a hyper-reality about them. The rites-of-passage roster is nothing new — first toke of weed, first date, first kiss — but a real sense of human vulnerability pervades the piece, making for a far richer experience than we tend to expect of a ‘mere’ comedy.
This is in no small part down to the excellent cast. From principals to supporting players (keep your eye out for a naked Charles Dance — though frankly he’d be hard to miss), it’s impossible not to fall back on the hackneyed phrase that the actors seem born to play these roles. Alice Eve (daughter of Shoestring!) brings a sense of warmth and compassion to the part of smart, sexy seductress Alice, who so easily could have proved the usual clichéd spoilt princess; while Benedict Cumberbatch, whose role as pompous team captain Josh verges the closest to caricature and offers the broadest laughs, still manages to suggest the human being behind the clown.
Yet the film’s beating heart is McAvoy. Already eye-catching in a clutch of TV roles and the standout as Mr. Tumnus in Narnia, McAvoy’s performance as the gentle, naïve Brian is one of the most exciting in years, not least because comedy is perhaps the most difficult genre in which to impress in a dramatic sense. Seemingly able to convey the profoundest emotions merely by blinking (witness Alice and Brian’s ill-fated first date at the local Italian) and yet equally adept in its lighter comic moments, McAvoy brings a depth and dimension that lift this beyond the usual confines of the rom-com genre, and confirms his growing reputation as one of the best actors of his generation.