Director – Paul Morrison – 2020 – UK – Cert. 12a – 102m
A man over sixty meets a woman of around the same age over 23 walks with their respective dogs – in cinemas from Friday, September 25th
Walk 1. Dave (Dave Johns) is out walking his Alsatian Tilly (Sheila) in a narrow, muddy alleyway one day when he runs into Fern (Alison Steadman) walking her terrier Henry (Dennis). Not that either they or we know their names at this stage – he is the bloke with the big dog without a lead that she has to get past, and she’s not impressed. He should have a lead, she says. He’s deeply apologetic.
Walk 2. He now has a lead and apologises for the previous day. They walk, they talk. Thus begin the eponymous 23 walks, with interruptions after a while mostly on Dave’s side of the story but a few on hers too. Both are in difficult relationship situations – his wife is catatonic and residing in a care home, the cost of which is putting him behind on the rent of his long-standing council home, her husband has run off with a younger model, his secretary. When we finally, briefly meet her husband, he appears cruel and uncaring in his treatment of his ex.
Dave’s wife Marcy (Marsha Millar) discovered God and, as Dave tells it, put God above her husband. After that, it was clearly only a matter of time before their relationship fell apart even before her current illness set in. However it’s clear that he still loves her and wants to do the right thing by her.
His friendship with Fern, platonic with romantic overtones, is going well when he “takes her to meet someone”. The discovery that Dave has a wife makes Fern back off in no uncertain terms and from there you wonder whether their relationship will ever get back on track.
Both have housing problems – Fern because her ex plans to sell her house and decides to speed up the process when he finds Dave visiting one morning, Dave because his local council decides to move him to a cheaper property outside the borough after two warnings about his arrears. “Can they do that?”, asks a shocked Fern.
Dave will experience further heartbreak when Tilly gets sick. He must also contend with his daughter Donna (Nathalie Simpson) telling him that he shouldn’t be seeing another woman while his wife / her mother is still alive, despite Marcy’s condition and Dave’s obvious need for companionship. For variety, we also meet Donna’s two young children who aren’t at all worried by the presence of grandpa’s new friend and unwittingly inform on him to their less sympathetic mum.
While most if not all of the dog owners met in passing are white, Marcy, Donna and the two grandchildren are black, thanks to inventive blind casting, highly believable in the multicultural mix that is contemporary London, although nothing much is done with that after the fact. But it’s good that it’s there. It might have been even more interesting to have had one of the two leads as non-white British.
Still, both Johns and Steadman are perfectly cast and turn in strong performances. Steadman is particularly good – the woman is a British national treasure. The two dogs are good too, especially Sheila the Alsatian who is the centre of possibly the film’s most moving scene when Steadman talks to her over the phone.
About an hour in, with the walks count up to about 18, you wonder where the film is going to go. Impressively, it avoids the usual British trap of a depressing ending despite tackling head on such difficult issues as housing problems and relationship break-ups. It also commendably avoids the twee sensibility that too often pervades British films about older people, as if they can’t really have real lives with hardships and joys and everything has to be condescendingly soft-soaped for the poor dears.
It’s a great demonstration of how much you can do with an original and inventive script, a small if well-deployed budget, a great pair of leads and a good crew and supporting cast. That rare film that you can watch with your ageing parents without feeling embarrassed.
Moreover, I write this as someone who, like actor Dave Johns, is not at all a dog person. So 23 Walks faced a real challenge to win me over. But win me over it did.
23 Walks is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, September 25th.